A year ago, I asked Professor Stephen Hawking how he would like to spend his last day alive.
‘Being with my family,’ he replied, ‘listening to Wagner, while sipping Champagne in the summer sun.’
As these poignant words blazed out from his hi-tech speech machine, a benign smile appeared on the Professor’s face.
He looked a happy man.
A year ago I interviewed Stephen Hawking in what turned out to be his final major TV interview. I submitted my questions weeks in advance so he had time to program his answers
And, extraordinarily given his condition, he was.
There are few crueller ways to die than from Motor Neurone Disease or ALS as it is known in America.
It’s an incurable affliction that attacks every part of the body, rendering victims incapable of walking, talking, eating or drinking unaided.
Yet the brain often remains unimpaired.
So those who endure it are still exactly the same person inside their useless torsos, and totally aware of the hellish existence they are suffering.
For a genius like Stephen Hawking, this must have seemed like the very worst of prisons, and one from which he could never free himself.
But he refused to let it crush him, and in the end, he DID free himself – mentally, if not physically.
‘I don’t have much positive to say about Motor Neuron Disease,’ he said in 2011. ‘But it taught me not to pity myself, because others were worse off and to get on with what I still could do. I’m happier now than before I developed the condition.’
A man with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, trapped helplessly in a motorised wheelchair for over 50 years, stating he was happier like that than as an able-bodied youth.
His attitude reminded me of the two-line D.H. Lawrence poem, Self-Pity:
‘I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.’
There was plenty of ‘wild’ to Stephen Hawking. He had a keen eye for the opposite sex – he’s pictured here with his first, long suffering wife Jane
He left his wife to be with his nurse Elaine – who he later divorced too
There was plenty of ‘wild’ to Stephen Hawking.
He had a keen eye for the opposite sex (he left his long-time and often long-suffering wife Jane to be with his then nurse, Elaine Mason – and then divorced her, too.)
And he could party with the best of them.
A famous England cricket player, Freddie Flintoff – whose own alcohol-related antics are the stuff of legend – told me how he recently got into a lengthy Tequila session with the Professor.
‘We did five or six shots and he was loving it,’ he said. ‘His carer kept giving him another one. I hope I have a carer like that one day!’
Hawking used to regularly frequent strip clubs, including Stringfellows in London.
Owner Peter Stringfellow explained: ‘Stephen loved the girls and the girls all loved him.’ Then he added, apparently seriously: ‘They’d all read A Brief History of Time.’
Hmmm. I suspect they all OWNED a copy of A Brief History of Time.
We all do, right?
But how many of us have ever actually read it?
The truth is that Stephen Hawking’s scientific theories were all way too terrifyingly complicated for the brains of we mere mortals to comprehend, even when he tried his best to make them relatable.
But what he did was make science cool.
A year ago, I went up to see him at Cambridge University, for what sadly turned out to be his last major television interview.
I’d been asked to submit my questions several weeks in advance so he had time to programme his answers.
It was only when I asked him a supplementary question that the full scale of what this involved became clear.
Hawking had an infrared sensor on his glasses that detected twitches from a muscle in his cheek, and transmitted them to a screen with scrolling letters and pre-planned words.
He averaged one word a minute.
So the answer to my supplementary question (about climate change) took him over half an hour.
It was agonising to watch, but that was his life.
It was the only way he could communicate.
I went up to see him at Cambridge University and his office (seen here) was packed with fabulous stuff: a Simpsons clock, pictures of him with an array of Popes and Presidents. Behind his desk was a mocked up hologram image of Hawking with Einstein and Isaac Newton
He also kept a giant poster of Marilyn Monroe
Hawking’s office was packed with fabulous stuff: a Simpsons clock (he appeared in the show many times), a framed copy of the Galaxy Song record signed by Monty Python, model space rockets, a giant poster of Marilyn Monroe, two giant blackboards filled with elaborate mathematical equations, and pictures of him with an array of Popes and Presidents.
Pride of place behind his desk went to a mocked up hologram image of Hawking with Einstein and Isaac Newton that was used in one of the Star Trek movies.
(By weird coincidence, he was to die on Einstein’s birthday.)
His assistant introduced us by raising Professor Hawking’s right hand so I could shake it.
It was almost porcelain-like in its appearance and texture, a result of him not using it for any manual work since he was 22.
‘It’s a great honour to meet you, Professor,’ I babbled excitedly. ‘I’ve waited three decades to do this!’
He triggered a button on his computer that blasts out a few instant pre-set answers.
‘Let’s get on with it!’
Hawking’s face contorted into a grin.
Everyone had told me about his great sense of humour, now I was seeing it at first hand.
The interview was classic Hawking – provocative and fascinating.
He was scathing about recently elected President Trump, who he branded a ‘right-wing authoritarian’ and he slammed his sceptical approach to climate change.
‘Climate change is one of the great dangers we face and it’s one we can prevent. It affects America badly, so tackling it should win votes for his second term.’
He paused for several minutes.
‘Are you finished, Stephen?’ asked his assistant.
The Professor wasn’t, and added two more words: ‘God forbid!’
Then his face broke into another massive grin as his staff roared with laughter.
‘Stephen loves a bit of mischief,’ explained one of his two carers.
I ended with some quick-fire questions.
Did he identify as a feminist?
‘Yes. I’ve always supported women’s rights. There is a seismic shift for women to accede to high level positions in politics and society.’
What is the biggest threat to our survival?
‘The great danger from artificial intelligence is if we let it self-design for then it can improve itself rapidly and we may lose control’.
Did he know the meaning of life?
‘I have no idea. But I do remember when I was happiest. It was 1967 and the birth of my first child, Robert. My three children have brought me great joy.’
He’d solved the mystery of black holes, what about the mystery of true love?’
‘Thankfully this is beyond human reasoning and should remain so,’ he replied.
‘Are you the world’s most intelligent being?’
‘I would never claim this. People who boast about their IQ are losers.’
(Trump had just boasted about having a big IQ..)
Finally, I asked which three people he would choose to live with on a desert island.
The first two were predictable – his science heroes Einstein and Galileo. The third, if you knew him well, was also predictable:
‘If I were able-bodied, Marilyn Monroe….’
When I finally left his office, I noticed a photo of Professor Hawking pinned outside to a wall with this quote below it:
‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious!’
It seems a perfect epitaph for an imperfect but utterly extraordinary man.
He was extraordinary. It was St Patrick’s Day when I interviewed him. When we finished, I asked the genius if fancied a pint of Guinness. He did – and he even programmed in ‘Cheers, Piers!’ as we posed for photos with our beer
Stephen Hawking never stopped wondering, or being curious.
He never let his wicked disease drag him down.
Instead, he let it inspire him to take on ever-greater challenges.
In this modern ‘victimhood’ era increasingly dominated by millennial snowflakes constantly bleating on about how terrible their life is, he was a towering testament to the power of the human spirit at its most courageous, tough and determined.
It was St Patrick’s Day on the day I interviewed him, so when we finished, I asked the genius if fancied a pint of Guinness.
He did – although I was told he preferred Bloody Marys – and he even programmed in ‘Cheers, Piers!’ as we posed for photos with our beer.
From black holes to the black stuff, it was the most memorable day of my 35-year career in journalism and an experience that left a profound effect on me.
I’m sure everyone who had the honour of meeting him felt the same way.
Cheers, Professor Hawking.
You were the most remarkable human being I’ve ever met.