This Article is From Mar 15, 2018

My Encounters With Stephen Hawking In Delhi

Stephen Hawking could not have chosen a more significant day to embrace eternity. The fourteenth of March or 3.14 was not only the day dedicated to the 'transcendental' number Pi that captures the immutable ratio of a circle to its diameter, it was also the birthday he shared with that greatest of scientists, Albert Einstein. Whizzing now down those starry, galactic pathways he knew so well, I imagine he would smile at the thought that time and space were no longer the barriers for him that they are for us, the slow-moving bipeds he has left behind.

This is indeed the first memory I have of Hawking. I recall with all the clarity of a Freudian 'screen memory' his quite astonishing progress down the walks of Cambridge in his iconic wheelchair in the early 80s - leaving everyone else far behind in more ways than one. I am sure there are many, many others who have the same visual image imprinted in their minds. At that time, though, I was a mere gawping graduate student who did not imagine that I'd ever have the chance to actually converse with Hawking. But I did get this extraordinary opportunity.

I met Hawking when he came to India in January 2001. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that the only reason for this was serendipitous. It was my husband, Ranjit Nair and his organization, the Centre for Philosophy and the Foundations of Science, who invited Hawking to Delhi.) The rest of this piece consists of three or four fragments of remembrance that I have treasured ever since.
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With Stephen Hawking in New Delhi (2001)

Among the first sites Hawking visited in Delhi was the 12th-century Qutub Minar. "Has it always been your wish to come to the Qutub?" a journalist present asked him. And those of us standing nearby watched fascinated as Hawking scrolled for the appropriate items in his computer lexicon before he answered. "I always wanted to come to Delhi" his screen said "but I did not know about..." Then, an infinitesimal pause before the words "this monument" completed the sentence. I cannot be sure, but I would hazard a guess that the choice before Hawking at this particular juncture was to actually build the new word 'Qutub' from the phonemes available in his computer inventory; if he chose this path, however, he could not be certain how his voice-synthesizer would interpret this lexeme. Or, he could choose an alternative phrase, which was in fact the semantic option he exercised. Even before I spoke to him, it was this quick-witted responsiveness to his environment, his courtesy and good humour, as well as his absolute determination to complete the thought he had begun, in a man to all intents and purposes profoundly disabled that made a deep impression on me. This was not a person who turned away from small challenges, let alone big concepts.

Next, we are at a small sit-down dinner in a posh Delhi hotel. My husband and Hawking are engaged in debating the completeness of physics and the redundancy of further research on the subject in about 20 years. This is with reference to a bet that Hawking had offered at a meeting in Rashtrapati Bhawan with the President of India and that Ranjit now took him up on. What about poetry? I piped up at some point during this animated interchange and waited breathlessly while the answer appeared, first on Hawking's silvery computer screen and then were rendered in a distant, metallic - one might even say, oracular - American voice by his speech synthesizer.
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Stephen Hawking encouraged interest in space where he believed humankind's destiny lay

Poetry is already redundant, Hawking declared. Now, it would, of course, be easy enough to read this sentiment in a superficial 'two cultures' vein that sees the sciences as staunchly opposed to the arts. However, I want to suggest that there is a deeper wisdom to Hawking's witty reply. His own mother was a poet, as Elaine Hawking, his wife at the time, remarked during our conversation. Upon which I cheekily enquired, my husband recalls, whether that meant his mother was redundant. Hawking did not appear the least bit offended at this. On the contrary. I therefore surmise that his was too sophisticated an intellect to so narrow-mindedly dismiss poetry. The thesis of the 'redundancy of poetry' relates, as I believe I learnt from Stephen Hawking, to a view of the poetic as that element of the imagination that goes beyond simple, instrumentalist conceptions of language and even beyond the great, verifiable propositions of science.

Poetry, like physics, is indeed redundant in the sense that we do not really need the rhythms of poetry or the laws of thermodynamics for any reasons of physical survival. If all the poems and theorems on earth were suddenly to disappear, we would continue to breathe, eat, walk and talk. Yet, in an important sense, we might lose an intangible but priceless aspect of human endeavor through the ages - that is, the attempt by humankind to transcend the routines and divisions of everyday life and reach out to strange, 'unifying' metaphysical 'truths', to invent concepts such as 'black holes' in order to illuminate the structures of the universe. That such imaginative truths are crucial to our existence was well understood by a long line of thinkers, sometimes called gurus in the Indian tradition. And it was understood by Hawking, a guru par excellence, albeit one with an almost Zen sense of the absurd.
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Stephen Hawking answered questions with the help of a voice synthesiser

It is worth recalling, in this context, that the Sanskrit word 'guru' and the Latin word 'gravity' (one which is at the core of most accounts of space-time in modern physics) are etymologically related. My next story is about how even absurdity gains resonance in the presence of a (Zen)-master. 

Since Hawking came to Delhi in January, it was calendar-time and so it was that I presented Elaine Hawking the 'Kali for Women' diary for the year 2001. None too seriously, this 'feminist diary' had imposed on its bemused authors, including myself, the following brief: " recast the business... of making predictions on the basis of sun/star/moon/signs, of conjunctions and aspects, colours, days and dates - and come up with something different." I tried at the time, as best I could, to explain to Elaine the possibly subversive value of such wacky woman's humour. Meanwhile, Stephen listened intently from his wheel chair. This in itself was not surprising, for he had begun his own public lecture at Siri Fort by drawing certain distinctions between the predictive practices of astrology and his own area of astronomy. But what happened next caught me off guard - for Stephen had typed up a single, stark question on his screen.
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Stephen Hawking at the UK premiere of the film "The Theory of Everything" (December, 2014)

Is astrology, enquired Stephen Hawking, his eyes glistening mischievously, different for feminists? Unprepared for this salvo, I responded feebly by quoting from my own contribution to the Kali venture: 'The task of a feminist soothsayer/Is to foretell the untold past...' The moment then passed, but the query remained. 

How is the past to be interpreted and retold, not just by feminists but by physicists, philosophers and others? It was this question that Stephen Hawking addressed in his bestseller "A Brief History of Time". To me, the most remarkable aspect of this book is that it seeks sunnily to explain to a lay audience the abstract laws that govern the universe. In this sense, like Feynman's "Lectures on Physics", it displays an enthusiastic faith that we can all stretch our minds to entertain even the most abstruse of ideas, a stance which seems to me touchingly hopeful. This is also probably why Hawking, top-notch physicist, wrote boisterous sci-fi books for children with his daughter Lucy about other planets, and why he would bother to engage with odd strangers such as myself who could, in effect, belong to quite another planet.
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Stephen Hawking on a special "zero-gravity" jet in 2007

This enthusiasm for other worlds extended to ones that presented baffling cultural enigmas, such as the occasion in Delhi when Hawking was gifted with that most complex of representations, the Dancing Shiva or Nataraja. What did it signify? he wanted to know. Again, I struggled. The line dividing the cosmic from the cosmological is just as hard to find apt words for as the one that separates astrology from astronomy. But, then, a couple of days later, I spotted a photograph in the newspapers of what was clearly a swinging party at the august TIFR in Mumbai where Hawking was being merrily whirled around in his wheelchair. Ah, now I can explain Shiva's dance to Stephen, I thought to myself, and then wrote him this poem in the symbolic shape of a narrowing 'black hole'.

The Third Eye
(for Stephen Hawking)

Shiva knows no Bhangra
Nor the Punjabi Rap
But he's a divine dancer
Who never takes a nap

And if for a single trillionth of a second
Shiva ceased to dance

All the world's great cities would quiver
On a knife-edge of chance

Every star in the universe would
Cease to burn

Neither sun nor earth
Would turn

Matter grow
So dense

So intense 
The dark

That your


On a windless night
In the lap of the sea
When Shiva sleeps
You will know eternity

A few years later, I published this poem but never sent it on to Hawking. That would have been redundant. What can never be redundant is Hawking's indomitable spirit, evident even in such passing encounters with him as I had. As a scientist, he exemplifies for me the best of the humanities, of what it can mean to be someone who lived almost his whole adult life entirely dependent on other humans for physical help but whose mind was ever independent, questing and transcendent.*

* I would like to thank the journals Seminar and Biblio in which some versions of the above reminiscences appeared over a decade and a half ago. 'The Third Eye' was published in my poetry collection Yellow Hibiscus (Penguin, 2004).

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books and is one of India's best known contemporary poets.)

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