As a young boy (from around five years old, in fact, or so my parents tell me) I lay awake many a night in the grip of existential dread. Or, more accurately, I would lie awake for hours before running into my parents room late at night in floods of tears, waking them up only to confront them with unanswerable questions, my unwavering need for proof and understanding preventing any of my parents’ answers from satisfying my juvenile mind.
“When did the universe begin?” “What lies outside the universe’s boundary?” “Is there a boundary?” “If not, how can anything be infinite?” “What will happen when I die?” “If existence isn’t infinite, how could an infinity of non-existence be possible either?”
Today a man who has dedicated his life to contemplating at least some of these most difficult of questions turns 75; Stephen Hawking. Hawking is remarkable in many ways: turning some of the most intimidating and inaccessible facets of physics into bestselling books, and his remarkable work in such fields; for the innumerable accolades and titles he has amassed, as evidenced by the collection of letters that succeed his name; and for being alive at all, having been told he had at best two and a half years to live some 54 years ago when he was first diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease) – the disease’s longest survivor known to medical science.
Perhaps I was too young to fully appreciate the work when I read it, but as much as I found A Brief History of Time interesting, it was The Grand Design that truly enthralled me. This book, co-authored with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow, was not met with such critical acclaim as his earlier works (though this may have a lot to do with his assertion that, whilst not explicitly disproving such notions, a God is unnecessary for creation), but aspects of the multiple universe (or “multiverse”) theory explained within excited me beyond belief. Perhaps this is due to my longstanding hope for proof that life exists beyond this planet – not because I believe in aliens (though I do love the X-Files), but because I find the thought that life may not have emerged only once on one solitary planet reassures me somewhat that our very existence may not simply be the result of an incredible, yet meaningless, happenstance. Or maybe it’s the magnitude of such a claim that excites the scientist in me; that science is not only alive and well, but is still as exciting and controversial as ever.
Whilst I still have no answers for the grand questions that continue to haunt me as I fall asleep, some of Hawking’s work has helped me feel less alone. And for that, I will always be grateful. Many happy returns.