Remembering Stephen Hawking: Faculty share brush with fame

Iconic cosmologist recalled for inspiration, contributions, sense of humor

March 26, 2018

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” 

̶  Stephen Hawking

After coming into the world on the anniversary of Galileo’s death and leaving it on the birth date of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking’s ashes will now sit near the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin for the remainder of time  ̶  however brief that might be.

A fitting resting place for the theoretical physicist who inspired youth, challenged beliefs, and made notable predictions in his field, Westminster Abbey recently announced the interment site near some of science’s most notable contributors. Hawking died March 14 at age 76.

Hawking, best known for his work on relativity and black holes, gained international fame for his brilliance and contributions to the understanding of the universe’s origin, structure and fate. Copies of his book “A Brief History of Time,” explaining his theories in lay terms, now takes up space on bookcases worldwide, from college dorms to suburban homes.

Clyde Zaidins
Clyde Zaidins, PhD

A groundbreaker, an icon

“He was a great communicator,” said CU Denver Professor Emeritus Clyde Zaidins, PhD, who met Hawking twice. “That book (which sold 10 million-plus copies) was a large part of the reason people got to know him,” said Zaidins, chair of the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. But the man’s public appeal transcends his science, Zaidins said.

“The fact that he became an icon is probably why so many people reacted to his death,” said Zaidins, who attended a Hawking presentation in Dallas in December 1974, where Hawking described for the first time in the United States a discovery suggesting black holes emit radiation. That theory, now widely accepted among his colleagues, later became known as Hawking radiation.

Stellar determination

Steven Maxson
Steven Maxson, PhD

Hawking was diagnosed just short of his 21st birthday with a rare motor-neuron disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or, more commonly, Lou Gehrig’s disease. His doctors said he had two years at best to live, but Hawking outlasted that prognosis by more than 50 years.

CU Denver senior physics instructor Steven Maxson, PhD, met Hawking in 1967. Then a first-year graduate student, Maxson attended a seminar at which Hawking, then a post-doctoral fellow, presented.

“My fellow graduate students and I felt horrible for him — he had just gotten his PhD and gotten a choice post-doctoral fellowship, and bam, he had that horrible disease and short life expectancy,” he said. “Somehow, he drew deep into his character and personal resources, and he managed to have a useful, productive and long life,” Maxson said. “He was one of the ‘valuable people’ for more than a half century.”

‘A remarkable man’

Hawking’s paralyzed body, computerized wheelchair and synthesized voice became recognized features, but it was his perseverance, spirit and wit that defined the Oxford-born man.

Hawking often made fun of his own theories, including during guest appearances on popular television shows, such as “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Pink Floyd used his synthesized voice on one of the band’s songs, “Keep Talking,” and Hawking appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a hologram.

“We lost a remarkable man with a fantastic sense of humor,” Zaidins said, quoting a text message from his step-daughter that she had sent him after hearing the news. “Although I’m very impressed he made it this long, I’m still sorry that he wasn’t actually immortal.”

Inspiration beyond this world

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking spent his life seeking answers to cosmic questions and sharing them with physicists and children alike.

Hawking shared his knowledge of time and space with the masses, writing a number of books and taking part in educational programs targeting non-scientists. He and his daughter, Lucy Hawking, wrote a series of children’s books, one called “George and the Big Bang,” hoping to inspire young minds to look toward the stars.

“When I was a kid, I always had the original version of “A Brief History of Time” sitting on the bookshelf,” said Timothy Duren, a CU Denver junior in biophysics. “I always thought Stephen Hawking was just above everyone else, and I didn’t have a chance of understanding his writing. His death motivates me to tackle it again,” Duren said.

Duren said Hawking earned respect. “He suffered throughout his life from Lou Gehrig’s disease and still went on to advance the frontier of physics, especially regarding black holes,” Duren said. “I think with Hawking’s passing away, it’s going to motivate a lot of physicists, including me, to carry the baton and keep moving forward into this frontier.

I think with Hawking’s passing away, it’s going to motivate a lot of physicists, including me, to carry the baton and keep moving forward into this frontier.

— Timothy Duren, CU Denver Biophysics Student

Brush with fame

When Zaidins was introduced to Hawking at the Dallas meeting, Hawking had become almost unintelligible. His then ever-present assistant co-presented the talk line by line, using transparencies as Hawking spoke. At one point, when Hawking was forced to admit that his previous claim that black holes could not emit radiation fell counter to his current theory, he stunned the audience, Zaidins said.

“He made a herculean effort and said, ‘But I was wrong!’ That was so clear, I think everybody in the audience had goosebumps when he said it. He was so emphatic about the fact that he had been wrong, that it was about the only thing that I could actually understand,” Zaidins said. “He got a standing ovation, of course.”

Hawking radiation was probably the man’s most impactful contribution, Zaidins said. “This was a major breakthrough. Everyone up until that point had thought that everything went in and nothing ever came out of a black hole.”

After the meeting, which was just before Christmas, Zaidins went shopping for his then young children. “And who did I run into in the toy store but Stephen Hawking and his assistant buying toys for Hawking’s kids. So I had two encounters with Stephen Hawking,” Zaidins said. “I feel fortunate that I actually did meet him both inside and outside of the meeting hall. In retrospect, it’s an exciting thing. He was a remarkable human being.”