Stephen Hawking’s Mother on Her Son’s Singular Genius and How We Expand the Boundaries of Human Knowledge
“People must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?”
By Maria Popova
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote in his manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Winnicott placed the concept of the “good-enough mother” at the heart of a healthy individual, and it is hardly coincidental that more often than not, great individuals have benefitted from the formative value system and unconditional love of a great mother — from Mark Twain, whose mother modeled for him what it means to have compassion for otherness, to Barack Obama, whose mother shaped his understanding of love.
Among these culture-shifting mothers is Isobel Hawking, mother of the great physicist Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) — a formidable mind whose work revolutionized our understanding of the universe and whose far-reaching legacy inspires poems.
The second oldest of seven children in a family of modest means, Isobel was among the few women to attend university in the 1930s. Less than a decade after the esteemed institution had begun granting degrees to women, her parents strained their finances to send her to Oxford, where Isobel studied philosophy, economics, and politics. It was in Oxford that she gave birth to Stephen in 1942 as air raids terrorized London nightly — in exchange for the British promise not to bomb the famed university towns Heidelberg and Göttingen, Germany had abstained from bombing Cambridge and Oxford. Nine months pregnant, Isobel journeyed to her formative intellectual grounds to deliver her son in safety. On one of her walks through town just before giving birth, she bought an astronomical atlas from the local bookshop — a purchase she would come to consider a sort of omen as her son ascended into astrophysical celebrity.
Isobel and Frank Hawking went on to raise their son in accordance with their strong belief in the value of education, filling his childhood with frequent museum trips and astronomical adventures, and imbuing him with a daring curiosity that would come to change the way we think about time, black holes, and the universe itself.
In her ninety-eight years, Isobel saw her son outlive by decades the ALS prognosis he had been given in his youth and steer the course of modern science with his defiant genius. From the fortunate platform of her tenth decade, she reflects on her son’s singular gift in a sentiment quoted in Kitty Ferguson’s excellent biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (public library):
Not all the things Stephen says probably are to be taken as gospel truth. He’s a searcher, he is looking for things. And if sometimes he may talk nonsense, well, don’t we all? The point is, people must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?
Complement with poet Marie Howe’s sublime tribute to Stephen Hawking, this 150-second animated adaptation of his search for a theory of everything, and the lovely children’s book about time travel that he co-wrote with his daughter, then revisit astrophysicist Janna Levin — one of the world’s foremost authorities on black holes, the subject of Hawking’s most seminal work — on the human element in the scientific climb toward truth.
Published July 20, 2018