Stephen Hawking, visionary physicist and humanitarian, has died at the age of 76. I am taking pause to remember his life and the brief time I spent with him while working at Harvard Physics. In the words of Neil Degrasse, “His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.” Hawking died on Albert Einstein’s birthday and Pi-Day, March 14th.
I had the pleasure of a dinner with Stephen Hawking while working as a Coordinator at Harvard Physics and HUCTW Union Representative for the Applied Sciences. As one of the few women of color working in a predominately white-male dominated field, I imagine Hawking had not met many Puerto Ricans in his lifetime. His death brought me back to that time at Harvard, and to the wonder of my conversation with Hawking where few words were exchanged but deeply felt.
When I spoke to Hawking, I asked him if we can make sure Puerto Ricans make it to space. I told him that I was an administrator in the Department. He asked me how my day was going. I responded and waited for his response. I used few words but I could by the glimmer behind his eyes, that he was engaged and processing what I had said. We looked at each other for what seemed like an aeon until another professor came into office to ask about an equation and interrupted our shared moment in time.
Hawking had a profound sense of consciousness that you could feel in his presence however, when the faculty came rushing in, I wondered if they shared this same consciousness in the way he was rushed into the next task without question.
The sound of Hawking’s respirator in the Department hallway unexpectedly brought me back to the time I had spent by by abuela’s hospice bed, massaging her legs and closing my eyes to learn from her silence and moans. My abuela Budhilda died of PCP, a degenerative neurological disease that left her lucid yet unable to speak in the last years of her life. I learned from her how to speak with few words and listen with my eyes.
I am a women of both heart and logic which had always brought value to the spaces I’ve worked in. The photograph above was taken in the home of Iranian physicist, Professor Cumrun Vafa who planned a night of Persian food and music for Hawking. Hawking chose not to talk about physics, but rather share pictures and stories from his travels to Iran as a young man and his observations of humans at war.
Hawking prepared a speech that was followed by a performance. I stood in the intimate audience, witnessing a strong yet gentle female musician play music directly into his heart while making intimate eye-contact with Hawking as her partner sang a classic Persian love song. We all felt something that can not be described in words that evening. At the center of heart and logic, I felt at home and in good company. It was a memorable moment and one of the many experiences I have had since 2016.
Hawking’s consciousness was a natural consequence for having to sit with himself at all times in his wheelchair, which gave him the freedom to move about in the world. Think of the Buddha sitting a lotus position. While Hawking was not a spiritualist, he was a humanist and if indeed there is a theory of everything, I would theorize that spirit and science are indeed connected.
Native Americans have long understood our relationship to the cosmos. As a spiritualist, I have experienced the simultaneous limitlessness and constraints of the universe from sitting on the beach and looking into the horizon. When I would hear theoretical concepts in the office like the event horizon or wave functions, I couldn’t help but think back to my own observation in nature and the ways we are constantly engaged with physics, even if we can not write the equation.
In addition to working as an administrator during the day, I was a graduate student at night. I let my heart absorb the knowledge around me and simultaneously break open in deep dissatisfaction when my intellect was not being utilized. There was something very human about Stephen Hawking that made a lasting impression. This picture tells many stories.
I made the difficult decision to leave my role as a Staff Assistant at the Harvard Department of African and African American Studies (AAAS) in 2016, when I was recruited by the FAS HR Diversity Office to work at Harvard Physics. It was AAAS I learned the word diaspora and how colonialism was not a fluke, but rather a method. In the words of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who asked faculty to give me a round of applause on my last day at the Department, he said, “Let us give Cassandra a round of applause,” to which faculty gave clapped and then he added, “She is moving from black people to black holes.” We laughed but little did I know that I would have the opportunity to meet the man at the center of the study of black holes, theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking.
One day, months before Hawking’s visit, a visiting physicist came to my door asking, “Are you Cassandra?,” and I nodded. He was a former classmate, from my days on the math team at Upper Elementary School. He told me how he noticed my name on the seminar announcement email and had not forgotten how I defended him against school bullies. As he spoke in gratitude and I fought back the tears. I wanted to ask him, “Why are you a Professor and I am not?” but I put on my smile, and thanked him for coming to my office.
When I met Stephen Hawking and we saw each other eye to eye, that pain that I felt in asking, “What could have been?” began to dissolve. The universe works in mysterious ways. There was a part of me, my inner 9 year-old who was in the gifted program before we were displaced by domestic violence and economic hardship, that I had severed ties with. It was too painful to remember my love of science or show others how much of a nerd I am when I had to survive taking whatever job to pay the bills.
In the present, I’ve allowed my love of quantum physics to rise to the surface. It was my dream at 12 to go Harvard. I did it, but not in the way I first imagined. I was a working class graduate student and I got to meet Stephen Hawking. I integrated my heart and logic, when I thought I would have to choose one or the other to be successful. The range of Hawking’s legacy, which includes his disability activism, and intellect is a reminder to humanity that we can always go beyond our physical and mental restraints to achieve something bigger than ourselves and more expansive than the universe.