Hawking in 1991. Photo: Rex/Tom Pilston/The Independent
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Stephen Hawking’s life is a triumph of intellect over adversity

Stephen Hawking received his "death sentence" more than 50 years ago. The Astronomer Royal pays tribute to him.

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. I learned that he had a degenerative disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – and might not live long enough even to finish his PhD degree. But, amazingly, he has lived on for 50 years longer. Mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he hasn’t merely survived. He has become the most famous scientist in the world – acclaimed for his brilliant researches, for his bestselling books about space, time and the cosmos and, above all, for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

The Theory of Everything, the film currently in cinemas, portrays the human story behind this struggle. And it surpasses most biopics in representing the main characters so well that they themselves are happy with the portrayal.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given back in 1963, when Stephen received his “death sentence”, against ever celebrating this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement, sustained now for more than 50 years.

Stephen went to school in St Albans and then to university at Oxford. He was, by all accounts, a “laid-back” undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first-class degree, and an “entry ticket” to a research career in Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound and his speech became an indistinct croak that only those who knew him could interpret. But in other respects fortune had favoured him. He married a college friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.

His scientific work went from strength to strength: he quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea) and how our universe began. In 1974 he was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32.

He was by then so frail that most of us suspected he could scale no further heights. But, for Stephen, this was still just the beginning. He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory – the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours; he couldn’t even turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best ever idea, encapsulated in an equation that he says he wants on his gravestone.

The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected: for instance, Isaac Newton realised that the force making an apple fall was the same as the force that held the moon and planets in their orbits. Stephen’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory which predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate in a characteristic way. This radiation is significant only for black holes much less massive than stars – and none of these has been found. However, “Hawking radiation” became a hugely influential concept in mathematical physics; indeed, one of the main achievements of string theory has been to firm up and build on his idea. It is remarkable that it is still the focus of theoretical interest, a topic of debate and controversy even 40 years after discovery. He has not been awarded the Nobel Prize because his idea is not confirmed by experiment. But in 2012 he was one of the first winners of the Milner Prize, worth $3m, intended to recognise theoretical work.

Cambridge has been Stephen’s base throughout his career and he became a familiar figure in the city, navigating his wheelchair around the streets. By the end of the 1970s he had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts at the university – the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton. Stephen held the chair with distinction for 30 years but reached the retiring age in 2009, and since then has held a special research professorship. He has continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe, addressing such questions as: “Was our Big Bang the only one?” He always had an amazing ability to figure things out in his head but generally he worked with colleagues who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say what should come next.

In 1987 Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than ten years since he could write, or use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser with the androidal American accent that has since become his trademark. His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so a single sentence took several minutes. He has learned to economise with words. His comments are aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In recent years he has become too weak to control this machine effectively, even with facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication – to his immense frustration – has become still slower. Let’s hope that his new Intel predictive software speeds things up, though he will not modify his “trademark” voice.

At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book that he hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, Robert and Lucy, who were then of college age. On recovering from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers had made errors (one picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. It was the first inkling that the book was destined to have huge success – four years on bestseller lists around the world.

Stephen became an international celebrity. His later ideas appear, beautifully illustrated, in other books such as The Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design. These were not bought by quite as many people as his first book, but they are more clearly written, and probably more people got to the end of them. He has featured in numerous television programmes; his lectures have filled the Royal Albert Hall in London, and similar venues in the United States and Japan. (In principle, machine translation could now give him an advantage over the rest of us by converting his speech into Japanese, Korean, or other languages.) He lectured at Bill Clinton’s White House; he was back there again more recently when President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a very rare honour for any foreigner. He has featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons, as well as in numerous TV advertisements. Even before the present film, his life and work had featured in movies. In an excellent TV docudrama, he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. (And in 2012 Cumberbatch spoke his words in a three-part documentary, The Grand Design, made for the Discovery Channel.)

The Theory of Everything conveys with sensitivity how the pressure of his celebrity, and the need for round-the-clock care by a team of nurses, strained his marriage to breaking point. Jane’s book on which the film is based chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and his career.

This is where the film ends. But it leaves us only halfway through Stephen’s adult life. After the split with Jane, he married Elaine Mason, who had been one of his nurses, and whose former husband had designed his speech synthesiser. However, this partnership broke up after a few years. He has been sustained, then and thereafter, by a team of helpers and personal assistants, as well as his family. His daughter, Lucy, has written books for children with her father listed as co-author.

His 60th-birthday celebrations in January 2002 were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honour and celebrate Stephen’s discoveries, and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren’t just scientific – that wouldn’t have been Stephen’s style. There were parties and dinners each evening. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike cut a huge birthday cake; a troupe of cancan dancers performed; there was music and singing. And when the week’s events were all over, he celebrated with a trip in a hot-air balloon.

Stephen continued, even in his sixties, to write technical papers and to speak at premier international conferences – doubly remarkable in a subject such as maths, where even most healthy researchers peak at an early age. He reminded us that he was not another Einstein; nonetheless few, if any, have done more to deepen our knowledge of gravity, space and time.

He remains an inveterate traveller despite attempts to curb this as his respiration weakens. All his trips involve an entourage of assistants and nurses. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, have given him the resources for nursing care, even private jets, and protected him against the “Does he take sugar?” type of indignity that the disabled often suffer.

Why has he become such a “cult figure”? The notion of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics, rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably would not have had the same resonance with a worldwide public.

It was amazing enough that Stephen reached the age of 60; few of us then thought that he would survive to another milestone – his 70th birthday. But he did, and this was again marked by an international gathering of scientists, and also with some razzmatazz: Richard Branson, Daniel Craig and other celebrities attended. Yet plainly he was then weakening; he had to watch most of the events by video while in hospital on a respirator.

But once again he recovered, and was soon back at work. Within three months he was off on another transatlantic trip. This was not just to lecture: he was determined to visit an underground laboratory in Canada where landmark and delicate experiments had been done. He was undeterred by having to descend two miles down a mineshaft. On a later trip only a last-minute health setback prevented him from travelling onwards to the Galapagos. In April 2013, he gave lectures to huge audiences in California. And just four months ago he was the “star” attraction (along with Brian May) at Starmus, a “cosmos and music” festival in the Canary Islands.

Stephen is far from being the archetypal unworldly or nerdish scientist – his personality has remained remarkably unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. As well as his inveterate scientific travels, he enjoys trips to the theatre or the opera. He has robust common sense, and forceful political opinions that he is ready to express. However, a downside of his celebrity is that his comments attract exaggerated attention even when he speaks about topics in which he has no special expertise – philosophy, for instance, or the dangers posed by aliens or intelligent machines.

Despite the pressures and difficulties, he is a determined campaigner for the disabled. He has also always been, at a personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He records that, in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, he felt his depression lift when he compared his lot with that of a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukaemia. In later life, he went to great efforts to visit a terminally ill colleague. And he has been happy to align himself with other campaigns and causes. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers in 2006 showed remarkable pictures of him in his wheelchair, surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah. And in 2013 he accepted the advice of Palestinian colleagues to decline an invitation to a major conference in Israel. But by the time the ensuing (and entirely predictable) controversy broke, he was in intensive care with a collapsed lung. Last month he hit headlines again with his claims that computers may become so powerful that it will be the end for humanity.

Even more astonishing are the photographs of him “floating” in the Nasa aircraft (the “Vomit Comet”) that allows passengers to experience weightlessness. He was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he has studied for decades and that has so cruelly imprisoned his body. He says he would still like to be a “space tourist”. In London in the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest ever audience when he played a star role in the opening ceremony for the Paralympics. He is probably, at least since the death of the actor Christopher Reeve, the best-known disabled person in the world – and, unlike Reeve, he achieved his fame while already disabled.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 21. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease and his expectations dropped to zero. He has said that everything that has happened since then is a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds – a manifestation of astonishing willpower and determination.

It is a great thing that some phases and facets of Stephen’s life have been so well portrayed in The Theory of Everything. Let’s hope that some time there will be another film that depicts his later life, and his scientific achievements.

This article is an updated and expanded version of a tribute to Stephen Hawking published in 2007

Martin Rees is a fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Clive Turner/Maeve McClenaghan
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Inside the lives of the 78 people who died homeless this winter

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or temporary accommodation.

In early March, the snow lay thick over the windows of Hamid Farahi’s car, obscuring the jumble of blankets, books and bags within. An entire life crammed into the passenger seat of a Peugeot 206.

Amongst the clutter was a prized possession – a letter from the office of Stephen Hawking. But 55-year-old Farahi no longer needed it.

Less than a mile down the road, Farahi had been checked into a hotel, the inclement weather forcing the homeless man out of the car where he was living and into a warm room for the night. It was there that he died. The cause of his death is still being investigated.

Farahi is one of 78 people the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found to have died while homeless this winter. This averages to more than two people a week, with at least ten people dying last month alone.

Despite many of these vulnerable people being known to the authorities, local journalists and charities are often the only ones that report these deaths.

The Bureau spoke to councils, hospitals, coroners offices, police forces and NGOs. Whilst there is a charitable network recording information on people sleeping rough in London, it found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless in the UK. Therefore, its count is likely an underestimate.

And so today, the Bureau launched Dying Homeless, a long-term project to track and count those that die homeless on UK streets. 

It has already started to log some of the stories of those who have died homeless on UK streets. They include an avid gardener, a former soldier and a grieving 31-year-old who had lost both his mother and brother.

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation.

The Bureau found that, since 1 October 2017, at least 59 men and 16 women have died – and in a further three cases the gender is not known due to lack of public information. The ages of those in our database so far range from 19- to 68-years-old. Fourteen deaths were of people 35-years-old or under.

The project has been welcomed by those working in the sector.

Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeper Services said: “It’s a scandal that people are dying on our streets.

“St Mungo’s would welcome more nationally collated, robust statistics around rough sleeper deaths.”

Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “To systematically record the number of deaths of rough sleepers in order to gauge the scale of the problem and investigate trends will be of enormous practical value.”

Farahi’s car now sits unclaimed, on a quiet side road behind the car park of a huge Tesco shopping complex in Harlow, Essex. Four weeks on from his death and, instead of snow, the windscreen is covered with floral tributes. There are 11 bunches of flowers in all, most now withered and brown.

“They all appeared over the past couple of weeks”, said Adam Protheroe. A local businessman, Protheroe had met Farahi the year before and had come to know him well. “I’m back and forth from Tesco all the time getting stuff for the wife and kids. I just came across him, said hello, he was a friendly enough guy,” he said.

Farahi once told Protheroe he had studied aeronautical engineering in Bristol. His Facebook page registers a stint working in avionics for British Airways.

Once, he even applied for a graduate research position with Stephen Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge. The Bureau saw paperwork confirming his application. Farahi told Protheroe and others he had made it down to the last three applicants.

But then, things started to go wrong.

“Someone conned him out of money and he ended up selling his pension to shark companies, that is what he called them,” Protheroe explained. “Losing that money was the start of the alcoholism I think, it alleviated the stress.”

Iranian-born, Farahi was also reportedly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time fighting for the army in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

People that knew Farahi years before told Channel 4 News he was not the easiest man to live with. He struggled with alcoholism for years and had to be removed from several properties. But many people in Harlow told the Bureau of their affection for him.

Chrissy Sorce works in a car rental hut, just five metres from Farahi ’s makeshift home. Her cigarette breaks would often bring her face to face with the homeless man. “At first I thought that’s a bit weird living there. He first arrived in the summer, and so I just started saying hello, ” she explained. Soon she was charging his phone for him or making him tea.

She told the Bureau that after gathering many books on advanced mathematics and engineering he had to enlist the help of a friend, who stored them in her daughter’s garden shed because they could no longer fit in his car.

“You know he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone’s vulnerable aren’t they,” she said. “He was a very intelligent man, he had all engineering books, maths books you know. He was just left here, I thought that was really wrong.”

The number of people sleeping rough has risen sharply across the UK, increasing 169 per cent in England since 2010, according to the government’s latest rough sleeper count. Experts warn cuts to mental health and substance abuse provision, coupled with rising private rents and a lack of social housing, are now forcing increasing numbers into homelessness.

However, there is no central database logging deaths of those who die when homeless. There no obligation on councils or coroners to log the deaths. Not all deaths make the news.

But that does not mean they go unnoticed. The Bureau found that for those working in the sector, news of premature deaths can be hard to shake.

Wayne Hood, from the charity Streets2Homes, knows two other people who died in Harlow this winter. The families do not want the names shared.

Hood knows only too well the dangers of sleeping rough. Now a paid outreach worker, he first arrived at the Streets2Homes shelter when he became homeless in 2015.

These days he splits his time between helping those who arrive at the day centre, tucked away in a small industrial estate on the edge of the town, and the time he is out walking the streets, looking for those that need help.

“I have these flyers printed”, Hood explained, pulling a handful of A4 sheets out of his rucksack. In big, bold letters they read: “Homeless you are not alone”. In the corner of a storeroom are bulging plastic bags tied tightly at the top, full of toiletries, bottles of water and other essentials. These are the packs Hood hands out on his round.

“Street homeless is becoming very visible here now. It has definitely increased,” he said. “We have 28 registered rough sleepers that we know of here in Harlow. It is probably more like double that in reality”, he added.

People bed down where they can. In a small square of grass outside the local St Paul’s church, eight tents huddle in varying states of disarray.

“When the weather was bad in March, we went out to places we thought people might be. A couple of occasions we opened up the centre here too, on Friday and Saturday night when it was really cold. It was a case of people bedding down here on the day room floor,” Hood explained.

At the same time, 70 miles away, Robert Wallis was settling in on the floor of an emergency shelter too.

Six days before Hamid Farahi died, as 'the beast from the East' cold snap pummelled the UK, Eileen Wallis, a homeless woman, woke up on the floor of the Catching Lives drop-in centre and found her 41-year-old son Robert, who was also homeless, dead beside her.

Eileen told journalist Gerry Warren of KentOnline: “I woke up and reached out for his hand but it felt really cold. I realised he was dead but tried to revive him.

“I knew he was ill, but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated. I have no idea what my future holds now.”

The centre, a squat rectangular building housed just metres from Canterbury East station, had been turned into an emergency shelter as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, a statutory requirement on councils to house homeless people in severe weather, prompted charities within the sector to open their doors.

“When the temperature is forecast zero [degrees Celsius] or less for three nights or severe wind, rain or snow, the council contact us and we open our day centre”, explained Graeme Solly, a Project Leader with Catching Lives day centre. “We had 47 nights of that this winter.”

The tables which usually line the hall were pushed to the side, the snooker and ping-pong tables moved back to make room for 15 people bedding down on mats on the floor. The centre was at capacity most nights.

"We are seeing a large number of rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and people who are vulnerably housed coming to our centre to seek advice", said Solly. Footfall at the Catching Lives day centre doubled between 2013 to 2015 and has remained around this mark since, he added.

Official figures show that, across the South of England, the numbers of rough sleepers has increased by 194 per cent since 2010, higher even than the national average.

Cuts to council budgets have had an impact on the care homeless people can access, said Solly.

With fewer options for referral to other services, staff at Catching Lives are left trying to support people as best they can.

Staff in the centre are still shaken by Robert Wallis’s death. Responding at the time, the centre’s general manager, Terry Gore, told Kent Online: “Every year we lose a number of clients, but we’ve never had anyone die inside the building before. It’s very sad for our staff, clients and volunteers.”

But Robert was not the only person to die while homeless in Canterbury this year. Less than three weeks later, the city saw another death.

Out on the streets of Canterbury, Sonya Langridge walks with a purpose, her years working for the navy evident in her powerful stride and eagerness to keep time.

“It was incredibly difficult this winter,” she told the Bureau. “I normally go out to start my round around 6am but there were some nights I’d find myself lying awake worrying about people, so I’d just get up earlier and check they were okay.”

Sonya is an outreach worker with Porchlight, a homelessness charity which works across the entirety of Kent. “People will sleep anywhere that is safe, if they are sleeping in the town centre it is for safety reasons, where they know cameras are, they know they have someone watching over them, or equally you get the people that go out in the woods by the rivers, tuck themselves away there where they feel they are not on show, they feel safe when no one knows where they are- those are the worrying ones, those are the ones we want to keep our eye on for their own safety.”

One of the people on Sonya’s watch was Shelly Pollard, a 42-year-old woman who was well-known around the city.

Many nights Pollard would bed down in the dimly lit doorway of a record music shop, the grand city walls visible from where she sat. Women make up around 22 per cent of rough sleepers in Canterbury, according to Porchlight, higher than the national average of 14 per cent. Sleeping where there is light and CCTV can provide some form of security.

“She was here every morning. She was always just here in the corner in the sleeping bag, maybe with some cardboard, sometimes spare clothes, you’d just hear snoring,” shop worker Alex Furness told the Bureau. “You couldn’t really believe she’d died until you heard it from a couple of people.”

A short distance down the road, watched over by a bronze statue of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, candles and flowers lay in tribute to Pollard. By the time of publication, a GoFundMe page trying to raise money for her funeral had raised £1,360 of its £4,000 goal.

Sonya is still shaken by Pollard’s death. But there is no time for her to stop. She covers a huge patch and spends her days scouring the streets and woods around the city, checking in with those that are rough sleeping.

“Sonya is fantastic, she can get people to talk to her who would never open up to anyone else,” said Mike Barrett, Chief Executive of Porchlight. “She was keeping almost a daily watch on Pollard. Sadly now Pollard has passed away.

“Her death is an example of the end of a process that is not fit for purpose, which is destructive and immoral.”

Barrett can reel off a long list of things he thinks are causing the increase in homelessness in the area and across the country: cuts to mental health services, lack of regulations around private landlords, landlords refusing to take those on Universal Credit.

Those issues, he says, are compounded by funding cuts to homelessness services.

“The cuts have impacted to a point where some services have closed. Others are so diluted they can’t do what they were set up to do”, said Barrett.

“Years ago Porchlight had 28 outreach workers. In 2011 our budgets were cut by 75 per cent and we ended up with a team of four [outreach workers]. So the charity, our board decided to pump some of our own reserves into it and we’re still doing that. But we’ve only got a team of 11, ”said Barrett. “The whole funding environment has returned to what it was in the 80s,” he added.

The Homeless Reduction Act, which was brought in earlier this month, puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness and provides some additional funds. But many in the sector told the Bureau they are worried it is not enough to counter the cuts that have already happened.

A recent survey of local authorities, by the homeless charity Crisis, found that 74 per cent warned that a roll-out of Universal Credit would significantly increase homelessness in their area. Nearly half also feared the lowering of the total benefit cap would significantly increase homelessness.

Farahi, Pollard and Robert died within weeks of each other. At least seven more people died while homeless in March too, according to the names compiled by the Bureau. The true figure is likely to be much higher.

Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, said: “The Bureau’s figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year.

“Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, we know these figures are likely to be an underestimate."

“It is extraordinary and unacceptable that nationally data on rough sleepers is so limited”, said Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach.

Thames Reach, along with other homeless charities, has now pledged support for the Bureau’s Dying Homeless project.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027.

Responding to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.

“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this month the Homeless Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force."

Farahi’s death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office. Around a week after he passed away his hero Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was buried with ceremony 17 days later, on 31 March. Farahi is yet to be buried. 

His car sits, stuffed with his belongings, the only remaining marker of his life.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us