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Look up at the stars and not down at your feet

  • Published at 10:12 am March 16th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:24 am March 17th, 2018
Look up at the stars and not down at your feet

My father woke me up around 9am on March 14 to inform me about the passing of Professor Stephen Hawking. I will admit -- it took me a few minutes to fully digest the news.

As irrational as it seems, I guess we all assume that certain people will always be there and Stephen Hawking was one of those people.

You see, science has always fascinated me. My earliest memories include table talks with my family, especially my father and elder brother, that revolved around the latest news in science. It involved hours of watching documentaries and reading encyclopedias.

I know I was a strange child, but this was how I grew up to love science, and while I do not recall when I first heard about Stephen Hawking, his name has been etched into the back of my mind for as far as I can remember.

In short, Stephen Hawking was a hero of mine since childhood, and it wasn’t only because of his intellectual prowess and his achievements in academia, but also his paradoxical life story.

According to people who knew Stephen Hawking when he was a child, he was raised in an intellectual and eccentric household.

Yet, he couldn’t read till he was eight years old and wasn’t academically successful when he first started out school. Still, he was called “Einstein” due to his intelligence.

In his university years, he was so brilliant in his studies that he believed he put just 1,000 hours of effort during his undergraduate studies and managed to get a first class honours at Oxford University.

He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS at 21 years of age, and was told that he had only two years to live, but went to live till the age of 76.

Before his rise to fame and becoming a household name, he was already considered an intellectual giant. His drive to figure out the inner workings of the universe and his work on black holes transformed the way we view the universe.

He was also appointed the prestigious Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University for 30 years, a post formerly held by luminaries like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, and Paul Dirac.

As countless obituaries and social media posts show, he meant a lot of things to a lot of people. A towering scientist, a loving father, a funny friend, and most importantly, an inspiration to us all

However, Stephen Hawking became widely known with his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. His subsequent books and appearances in documentaries and TV shows managed to inspire countless people across the globe to look up to the stars and the heavens beyond our pale blue dot -- all of which made him the best science communicator of our time.

Aside from his academic work, Stephen Hawking was known for his warmth and wicked sense of humour by people who knew him. Whether it was appearing on Star Trek to play a game of poker against Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton (and winning the round) or his barbs against Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, he was arguably one of the biggest pop icons of our time.

However, I will perhaps best remember him from a short clip of him that I saw in 2016 when I attended a talk by an eminent string theorist and Harvard professor, Cumrun Vafa, titled “physics and geometry,” at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran.

During the talk, he showed a small video clip of a dinner he had with Professor Stephen Hawking at his residence in the US.

In it, you can hear Stephen Hawking thanking his host for inviting him “to this Iranian feast” and says the Persian phrase “noushe jan” which translates to “enjoy your meal” -- a phrase Iranian people use out of courtesy. Stephen Hawking visited Iran a number of times.

As countless obituaries and social media posts show, he meant a lot of things to a lot of people. A towering scientist, a loving father, a funny friend, and most importantly, an inspiration to us all.

His tenacity and dedication in the face of adversity can best be summed up by his famous quote: “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. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

May you live amongst the heavens that you sought to understand. You will be sorely missed, professor.

Rastin Reza is a science and photography enthusiast residing in Tehran.

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