Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Stephen Hawking somehow lived with the lethal disease of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that kills its victim in three years or less, for over fifty years. The disease gave him reason to use his brilliant mind to contemplate the physical universe and, by that contemplation, to approach the most profound and haunting question: why does this universe exist? He is reported to have said that all of his research was actually prelude to that fundamental mystery.
It is no insult to Professor Hawking’s memory to say that this is a question for all of us to face, and that we need not have either an understanding of his work nor the staggering measure of his intellect to address that question. Interestingly enough, he himself felt that it was critical to be able to explain his research in a way that could be understood by all of us.
To my mind, that very question is what we wake up with every morning. It lurks behind every effort we make — every widget we help manufacture, every product or service we help to sell, every diaper we change, every dish we wash, every bed we land on at night and make in the morning. It is also the question that we often take great pains to avoid.
Forget the universe and black holes and entropy. What am I doing here? What’s it all about? Where is my meaning, my value, my significance? It’s not all about me. That way lies chaos, madness, war. Neither is it about believing in some mystery. Here and now is what we have, and my value is either right here or it doesn’t exist.
That was really the question that Steven Hawking was asking, and the important thing about his work is that this question remains and this question defines us. So long as it remains, we remain truly human. Fear not the attacks on our meaning by those hopelessly lost in self-interest. Fear the day when we all stop asking that question. So long as the question survives, so long as we continue to ask where our real significance lies, we remain truly human. Hawking still lives because the question he asked himself all his life still lives.