Stephen Hawking, “A Theory of Everything,” and what we can learn


By Dave Andrusko

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Watching the Golden Globe awards Sunday (a kind of precursor to the Oscars), I was reminded how, even more than usual, I had missed many very fine films in 2014. Among the winners was Eddie Redmayne in the “Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama” category for his portrayal of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

Hawking is a remarkable man on many levels. But for most of us who tried to plow through his “Brief History of Time,” we can be forgiven if our most lasting impression/memory is admiration that he had developed his ground-breaking cosmological theories even though Hawking had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) when he was 21.

I mention the film because of a piece that I read yesterday in the British publication The New Statesman. Alex Taylor notes that she herself was born with cerebral palsy in 1990, two years after Hawking’s best-seller was published. The introduction to her article nicely summarizes much of her argument:

Stephen Hawking would not be Stephen Hawking if he had been born with his disability

The physicist is held up as an example of what you can achieve in life if you have a disability, but he was only diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was 21 – his career was set in motion while he was still able-bodied.

Hawking’s disease, as most of you know, has come to point that as of 2009 he had become almost completely paralyzed. He is largely confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. He communicates by using a small sensor which is activated by a muscle in his cheek. The adaptive communication speech synthesizer system is known as Equalizer. [1]

Taylor’s point is “Had Hawking been born with a disability, he would still have had this same potential – the same mind, daring, courage and thought, but he would have faced very different prejudices. It is likely that even the most basic access to advanced education would have been deemed out of the question, blocking the groundwork from which the mind-boggling theories emerged.”

Pro-lifers look at the situation from an additional vantage point. I know nothing about Hawking’s parents, but what if Hawking’s motor neurone disease had been diagnosed prenatally?

With (or without) knowing his genius, would doctors have counseled Hawking’s parents to “start over” with another child? Would they have said his life would be so limited he would be ”better off dead”? Would they have appealed to his parents—for reasons of “mercy”–to “do the right thing” for their son?

Had they been able to do so, and persuaded his parents to go along with their advice to abort, think of all that would have been lost. As one biographer put it, “Arguably the most famous scientist alive today, he is considered a living legend for his amazing contributions to quantum physics.”

But Hawking’s right to life is not a reflection of his genius; it is his, like everyone else’s, an endowment that we recognize, not confer.

Having said this, I do need to see “A Theory of Everything.”

[1] Last month Hawking was onstage with a company that that has produced a technology that has been integrated into his current system “so that it can accurately predict whole words, rather than just characters. That means that the time and effort Professor Hawking requires to type is significantly reduced, allowing for a much easier, speedier experience for him.”