What Stephen Hawking gave to us

I do not regret passing up the chance to take a selfie with Stephen Hawking.

I wasn’t friends with the famous physicist, who passed away on Wednesday more than half a century after being diagnosed with the motor neuron disease ALS. I didn’t know him like many science journalists do. I never really spoke to him, and I never got a photo with him to show my grandchildren. I just ate some meatballs with him, and I’m happy with my choices.

Three years ago, I went to a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. It was coming up soon—like, why the heck did you wait so long to invite journalists, soon—and it was on theoretical physics, a subject that’s more than a little out of my comfort zone. But it was an exclusive invite, the email promised.

Plus, Stephen Hawking would be there.

And, well, he was already 73 years old, and I was working for a newspaper that could afford to send me, and I’d heard Stockholm was pretty nice in August. So I found myself the one unbooked AirBnB in Södermalm and buckled up for a week of listening to some extremely esteemed physicists discuss the black hole information paradox.

Stephen Hawking was not the only famous brain in attendance. In fact, when he arrived an hour late for the first day of the conference, he interrupted the speech of a Nobel laureate.

But his arrival still caused a hush to settle over the room; a sense of awe akin to being in church, and not just because we were in a room at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology that used to be a chapel (they keep Christ behind a gilded curtain these days).

Even among some of the most brilliant men and women in the field, there was still a sense of significance in the air when he arrived, and especially when he spoke. Yes, some of his colleagues rolled their eyes or shook their heads in disagreement with his particular takes on the theories up for discussion—he was a genius, but so are lots of people—the overall feeling was one of nearly suffocating expectation: Hawking was here. What would he have to say?

I was seated directly behind him, with a perfect view of his purple shoelaces and the screen of his computer, on which he typed out all his missives to the rest of the world. Even with the software’s predictive technology, it took him a minute or more to write out an entire sentence using the movements of his cheek. I remember seeing him start to formulate a phrase and feeling my heart race at the thought that I might see his contribution to the conversation before he even spoke aloud. I waited for each new word like it might be some grand prophecy for our age.

As it turns out, he was telling his companion he was pretty sure he’d left his speech on the wrong laptop.

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