A Brief Moment of Silence for Stephen Hawking

By Gordon Freedman

It is not easy to say goodbye to an icon. I had the pleasure of working with Stephen Hawking over a three year period in the early 1990’s when I was a filmmaker. The resulting feature film documentary, A Brief History of Time, directed by Errol Morris, was a production of my company and followed the contours of Stephen’s runaway best-selling book of the same title. The three years was a magical and trying time. Hawking was just coming into world fame. His book was setting every record for a nonfiction book, let alone one on astronomy and cosmology. Translated into more than thirty languages, bought by nearly thirty million people, seeing the images on the covers in every major language was a breathtaking experience.

How was it that this once obscure scientist, confined to a wheelchair with a debilitating disease that robbed him of almost all movement, led to the unfortunate silencing of his voice, somehow lit up his mind and passed a wondrous spark to millions? The wheelchair and the early electronic voice produced by an equally early computer made Hawking seem like a vision of things to come – human and machine reaching into the future.

In reality, Stephen was a true scientist-mathematician, with a deeply ironic and dry sense of humor, a bit of the devil and a zest for life that redefined what it meant to be paralyzed and without a voice. I think it was this condition, plus extraordinary will and drive, that allowed us to listen and try to understand what he was saying about the universe. The deepest irony, and maybe this is what truths are made of, is that his life and science began to get serious as he lost the ability to enjoy life normally. And the science he pursued was itself a reflection in the universe, by analogy, of his disease.

Stephen’s core investigation, as a lay person understands it, was unraveling certain mysteries about the collapse of black holes into singularities as a way to better understand the expansion of the universe from the moment of the big bang and the creation of time, space and matter. Stephen took a lot of flak from fellow scientists for popularizing science and becoming a media star in the process, while most scientists don’t even try to escape their own gravity and communicate across the math-brain barrier about the wonders they explore.

The truth is that language is so bound in metaphors and analogies it is nearly impossible to convert what is known through difficult and arcane math into everyday language. In fact, it can’t be done with accuracy or authenticity. When it is done well, it is like poetry is to prose, something is conveyed from in between the words, as the words alone do not communicate the same value or pathos of a poem by themselves. Stephen was such a poet. He was our muse and link to the cosmos that he has just gone off and joined. My guess is that he is already trying to reach us.

The lasting lesson from having the opportunity to know Hawking was that Stephen challenged boundaries as a matter of course, did not accept the status quo, dared to imagine, worked to prove and was public and out front about every step on his worthy quest. He did all this but was at the same time a very personable and lively character under the veneer of computer, wheel chair and disability.

After all of the seriousness and wrangling to make a documentary film like a full scale movie is made, dealing with international funders, a strong director, and going to lengths to do the subject (cosmology) and the interpreter (Hawking) justice, what remains for me having known Stephen over nearly thirty years, are particularly zany moments.

Nearly Famous. I first met Stephen in 1989 at the University of California Santa Barbara a few hours before he was to give a lecture on black holes. He and his entourage – he seemed like a rock star – were doing a mic check with his computer speaker. His favored nurse, Elaine, later to be his wife, was doing cart wheels on the stage as Stephen and Nick, one in a long line of assistants, worked on voice levels looking out over an empty hall. Nick was wearing a white T-shirt, a skinny leather tie, and an old sport coat. Stephen had an over sized button pinned on his lapel, upside down. It read, “Nearly Famous.”

90 Degrees. The next day, I sat down for my first interview with Stephen, on the trail of obtaining the documentary film rights to his book A Brief History of Time. I had read the book many times, highlighted passages in multiple colors, written notes in the margins. This is not to say I understood it inherently, but felt I had an impressionistic understanding. When I asked a question about imaginary time, a necessary mathematical representation in working with special relativity and quantum mechanics, there was the normal very long pause – minutes – until Stephen typed out with one thumb the answer that his computer voice would speak. I waited and then the machine beeped and it said, he said, “Imaginary time is the rotation of 90 degrees from normal time.” I am still wondering.

Hawking’s Voice. The project progressed to the point that my wife, Amanda, and I flew to England and met Stephen, his first wife, Jane, and their three children for dinner in their university provided home on “the backs” at Cambridge University. The mission was to obtain his agreement to proceed with the film. We had heard of Stephen’s appreciation of French wine. We bought several chateau bottles and even more was consumed at dinner. At one point, Stephen or one of the children asked what would happen if he tried to get his voice computer to speak French. Stephen dutifully wrote a sentence in French, pushed his hand pad, and out came gibberish. We left with Stephen’s thumb print on the contract.

Stephen & Steven. To get the unusually large amount of funding to make a documentary, like a real film, required leg work. I knew someone who worked for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. She asked Spielberg. It turned out that he very much wanted to meet Hawking, was in awe of him and happy to have the opportunity. The meeting of the two stars of the universe was unusual and charming. Hawking got signed ET posters for his youngest son. At one point, Spielberg looked intently at Hawking and asked in all seriousness, “Will there be a point in time, when I can think of a movie scene and it will just appear on film?” Hawking, who had very expressive eye and eyebrow gestures, privately signaled what amounted to a chuckle to Errol and me.

Racing Wheelchairs. When we finally got to the first day of shooting the documentary made like a film, our producer David Hickman from Anglia Television was pacing inside the cavernous film studio in London where Stars Wars had been shot. We had built sets, had a full movie film crew and film lights, even though we were interviewing real people. Errol Morris and the production designer had recreated Stephen’s Cambridge office down to every last detail, including pictures of Marilyn Monroe which adorned his actual office. We even had a double, dressed like Stephen in a matching motorized wheelchair we had paid for. No one could find Stephen as we got ready to shoot our first take. In fact, no one could find the double or the other wheelchair.

It turned they had both sneaked outside, escaping their minders, to race the wheel chairs to see which one was faster.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.