In “Professor Dowell’s Head,” a 1925 science fiction novel by Alexander Belyayev that was a must-read when I was a kid, a dying scientist bequeaths his body to a colleague who then revives just the heart and the head. In this form, Professor Dowell lives on but hates it. The life of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who died Wednesday, had been almost like fictional Dowell’s since the 1980s, and he cherished it.
Hawking’s scientific achievements are too obscure for most people, even though he was outstanding at popularizing his work. “A Brief History of Time,” his work on cosmology that sold 10 million copies, has been described as “the most popular book never read.” Most of those who helped crash the website on which Hawking’s 1966 Ph.D. thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes,” was published last year probably couldn’t get through the manuscript. The origins and size of the universe and the inner workings of time are esoteric matters, and to get at Hawking’s bird’s-eye view one would need to be quite a high-flying bird. “The subject of this book is the structure of space-time on length-scales from 10^-13 cm, the radius of an elementary particle, up to 10^28 cm, the radius of the universe,” a monograph Hawking coauthored with mathematician George F.R. Ellis in 1973, states boldly on Page 2.
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So for an overwhelming majority of people, Hawking’s real value has been in proving that a powerful brain doesn’t really need a functioning body to survive, thrive and even have fun. Hawking arguably did more for the ascendance of nerd culture than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put together. They were visionary and at times eccentric, but Hawking has been more than that: disembodied, a living challenge to the laws of nature he wanted to bring into a single “theory of everything.” That’s why Silicon Valley CEOs grieve his death. And the space entrepreneurs -- Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson -- have merely been following his most famous advice: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
“Strange, when I lived, it seemed to me that I only lived by the work of thought,” Dowell’s head said in Belyayev’s novel. “I really didn’t quite notice my body, I was so absorbed in scientific work. And only when I lost my body did I feel what I was missing.” It continues, “Oh, I’d gladly give up my chimeric existence for the joy of hefting a simple cobblestone in my hand!”
Hawking must have gone through similar suffering after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) but, uninterested in posing as a tragic figure, he remained both cheerful and pragmatic. “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with,” he said. “Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Had Hawking not lived this advice with what looked like supernatural ease, many of his quotes would read like the inspirational garbage one often finds on the social networks. He didn’t need religion or any other spiritual crutches to sustain him -- perhaps as big a contribution as any to millennials’ increasingly frequent atheism. Hawking merely appeared to enjoy what he did, including making scary predictions about an end of the world brought about by amok artificial intelligence or climate change. He enjoyed the headlines and the celebrity that had little to do with his research and everything to do with his flawless demonstration that an agile intellect didn’t need arms, legs, or even a working voice. The software that allowed Hawking to speak is available to anyone under an open license, a reminder that the human body can fail but that doesn’t have to bring down the mind it houses.
Hawking wasn’t exactly a cyborg: Though he lived extraordinarily long for someone with his condition, he didn’t live long enough to get artificial “spare parts” or have his brain transferred to a computer so it could live on in a robot body. Hawking thought it would be possible someday. “I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer, so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death,” he said in 2013. As in everything else he said and did, Hawking wasn’t weighted down by the present, just as he was minimally constrained by his paralyzed physical shell. This nonchalance about living outside an uncomfortable frame and Hawking’s enormous courage in facing both death and the future will live on, even if his cosmological theories remain unproven or end up rejected.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.