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“Make sure we keep talking”: the horizon-expanding curiosity of Stephen Hawking

His search for a theory of everything became a story for everyone. 

The internationally celebrated theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, has died at his home in Cambridge at the age of 76. 

In a statement about their father’s death, his children Lucy, Robert and Tim acknowledged how his study of the stars inspired millions around the world: “He once said, ‘It wouldn’t be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.' We will miss him forever.”

The news broke on the same night that the UK awaited the Russian government’s response to the poisoning of a former spy on British soil – and was a timely reminder of what connects us across borders. “All we need to do is make sure we keep talking,” Hawking once advised humanity (words that the band Pink Floyd would later re-purpose). 

Born in 1942, on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, his mother fled London’s war-time bombs for the safety of the countryside, and the young scientist would grow up in a house in St Albans with a basement full of bees and a greenhouse full of fireworks.

A passion for mathematics soon led him to a PhD in physics at the University of Cambridge. But the growing power of his mind was coming into conflict with the deteriorating state of his health, and he was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease called ALS. He was just 21 years old.

His symptoms would later require the use of a wheelchair and a voice-synthesiser, yet the experience spurred on his work. “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing,” he wrote in his memoir. “I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I was reaprieved.”

Hawking’s research in the field of black holes and relativity, together with his fellow cosmologist Roger Penrose, earned him vast international acclaim and prestige; most famously in proving that black holes were not vacuums or “eternal prisons”. Then in 1988 he published a book, A Brief History of Time, which set records all of its own. Published in 40 languages, the bestseller explained complex ideas about how the universe started and how it might end to a mass audience.

He always remained anxious about about what might lie ahead for humanity, however, issuing numerous warnings about the giant balls of cosmic fire or take-overs by artificial-intelligence that could lie in wait.

But it was perhaps this mix of horizon-expanding curiosity and deep personal care that turned his search for a theory of everything into a story for everyone. At a time when the cold war’s space race was finally approaching an end, Hawking’s work inspired a whole generation to think differently about the stars and our place within them.

“No one created the universe and no one directs our fate,” he once wrote. “This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe—and for that I am extremely grateful.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.