By Megha Merani
On the first anniversary of his death, his ex-wife Jane Hawking reflects on her life with the renowned physicist and cosmologist
Jane Hawking, the ex-wife of renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, has shared memories of spirited discussions between them about science and religion as she made an effort to reconcile their contradictory beliefs.
March 14 marks the first anniversary of Stephen’s death.
The Cambridge prodigy was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease at the age of 22 and given two years to live but he defied the fatal prognosis of the incurable disease for more than 50 years. He died on March 14, 2018, at the age of 76, having been recognised as one of the world's most brilliant scientific minds.
Rather than attribute it just to science, Jane, a devout Christian, reconciled the fact that her former husband, unlike her, did not believe in God, from a place of deep empathy and compassion for his suffering.
“It didn’t surprise me that he couldn’t believe in God,” she told Arabian Business in an interview in Dubai.
“Because surely if God were a loving God he wouldn’t have caused him to have a disease which was going to reduce him to immobility and shorten his life in the way that it had. And too, he couldn’t believe in a creator God because he himself was trying to calculate the origins of the universe. So this was how I reconciled myself to his point of view or tried to understand his point of view.”
However, the couple did have many debates on the subject, Jane added, recalling a funny conversation with the genius astrophysicist.
“One day I said to him: ‘How is it that you settle on a line of work to pursue, a theory to develop?’
“And he thought about it and he said: ‘Well, what you have to do is look at all the possible lines of research and then you have to choose the one which you think is most likely to produce results’.
“And then I said: ‘Well how do you do that then?’ and he said ‘oh well you have to take a leap of faith’.
“So then I said: ‘Well what’s the difference if I take a leap of faith and believe in God and you take a leap of faith to choose your theory?’ Faith is faith.”
In a profound coincidence, the day of Stephen’s death fell on the birthday of, arguably, science’s greatest icon Albert Einstein, who was born March 14, 1879, while his birthday, January 8, 1942, fell on the 300th anniversary of the death of another great science mind, Galileo Galilei.
Jane said she had no explanation for the connection between the giants of modern cosmology, remembering that Stephen had a student who was “fascinated” by the coincidences.
The Hawking Radiation Theory, the phenomenon of a black hole slowly losing its energy, was one of Stephen’s most significant scientific contributions. His book ‘A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes’, which broke down his theories of the cosmos for the layperson, also became a best-seller.
As for her definition of time and space, Jane said that time, for her, “is a very personal thing”.
“I’m always short of it, always running out of it, and it’s doubtless very psychological because I cannot imagine infinite time. And perhaps only when I look up at the night sky in France and see the whole extent of the Milky Way, I realize that we are just a tiny, tiny planet on the outer ring of that galaxy, the immensity of space is more than I can comprehend too.”
Jane added that she believes love persists even in the afterlife. “I would say that love persists even after death and so because it’s always there we should be very careful with the people we love and live with.
Jane, who talks about the couple’s good and bad times in her memoir 'Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen', was one of the authors speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai earlier this month. Her book went on to become award-winning film 'The Theory of Everything'.
Looking back on their life together, the petite English author called the birth of the couple’s first child “undoubtedly” their happiest memory but said it was still painful to talk about her most difficult moments.
Jane and Stephen were married in 1965 and divorced in 1995 when he left her to marry one of his nurses, Elaine Mason.
“Well there were quite a lot of them [difficult moments] and I think maybe I shouldn’t talk about that because that was really the period when the nurses were taking over our house,” she said. “They put Stephen on a pedestal and they couldn’t understand why we didn’t worship the ground under his feet.”
The author, who has also written books ‘Silent Music’ and ‘Cry to Dream Again’, said she hasn’t been able to write anything since her ex-husband passed away.
“The problem is, at the moment, or for the past year since Stephen died, my mind has been on other things – and it’s been a very chaotic, traumatic year, with lot of sadness,” she explained. “And I’ve also had to try and help my children because they have to deal with all the complications of sorting out Stephen’s property and his estate. It hasn’t been easy for them… so it’s been a whole year since I actually managed to sit down at the computer and concentrate, which I did every day when I was writing the other books.”
Jane, who is now married to musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones - whom she met when she took up singing in her local church choir that was run by Jonathan - added that she draws a lot of her own background as a setting when writing stories.
“We all reflect what we know and what we’ve experienced,” she explained. “I feel that over the years I’ve met so many people and I’ve observed so many characters and so many personalities, that writing people or writing whole scenarios and settings and descriptions and people comes quite naturally. If you have the setting – it may be quite a remote setting, somewhere you’ve been, somewhere you know – then the people grow out of the setting, and that I have found quite an extraordinary process.”
However, Jane confirmed that she is definitely looking forward to writing her next book, which will make the final part of a series.
She said: “I’m hoping when things calm down a little bit more… [because] they are all part of a trilogy entitled ‘Immortal Souls’. I haven’t yet got a title for the third one [book] but it might be ‘outrageous fortune’ because I like taking quotations from Shakespeare. But I haven’t decided on that yet.”