As a theoretical physicist who specializes in cosmology and gravitation, I naturally had many opportunities to interact with Stephen Hawking before his death. We attended the same physics conferences, where he was always rightfully celebrated as one of the world’s great scientists. He regularly visited the California Institute of Technology, where I work as a researcher. And, in perhaps my greatest contribution to world culture, I helped arrange Stephen’s cameo appearance on The Big Bang Theory.
But to get a glimpse of what Stephen was really like, let me tell you the story of time I picked him up at the airport.
Usually picking someone up at the airport is not a major logistical operation. Stephen, who lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, traveled with a retinue of students and nurses, as well as his custom-made wheelchair and various pieces of medical equipment. But this should have made my job easier, rather than harder: All I was actually asked to do was to meet them upon their arrival and point them toward the special van that had been rented for Stephen’s use. In-and-out job, right?
I should have known better. First, only one person in Stephen’s group, a graduate assistant, was licensed to drive the van, and that assistant was staying in a different hotel than Stephen and the nurses. But Stephen had a rule that the van was to be with him at all times, even if the person who was allowed to drive the van was elsewhere. And he wanted to check into his own hotel room, then proceed to dinner, before the graduate assistant checked into the other hotel. So I was asked to follow the group as they went to the first hotel and then to dinner, at which point I could take the assistant to his hotel and then back to rejoin the group at the restaurant.