Midnight. As I was browsing the internet, I saw, like shooting stars, emails suddenly appear and disappear from the right-hand corner of my computer screen. The first from CNN announcing the death of Stephen Hawking, the second from an editor at The Atlantic asking me to write about him.
I had written about the man for 10 years—as a biographer of some sort, or an anthropologist of science to be more precise, studying the traces of Hawking’s presence. But now I felt a powerless inertia, unable to write anything. I didn’t think I would be affected by his death, but it touched me deeply. I was overwhelmed by the numerous articles that started to appear all over the world doing precisely what I had studied for so long and so carefully: recycling over and over again the same stories about him. Born 300 years after the death of Galileo Galilei, holder of Cambridge’s Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (once held by Isaac Newton), and now ... died on the same day Albert Einstein was born. The life paths of history’s most iconic scientists intersected in weird ways. The puzzle seemed complete: Hawking had fully entered the pantheon of the great.
Because of him, I too had been in the eyes of the press. After I wrote an article in Wired magazine about his reliance on technology, I received an incendiary message on my answering machine accusing me of desacralizing his iconic status by transforming him into a robot. My picture circulated in the Daily Mail with Darth Vader at my side. I even received death threats. But I was arguing not that he was more machine than human, but rather that he was like all of us: all too human, and always dependent on others, whether humans or machines.
Hawking fascinates. He has always done so and he will always do so. He fascinated me as an anthropologist curious to understand the ins and outs of modernity: science, technology, and, at its core, the central role of genius and individuality. Hawking was at once a “beautiful mind” in the public eye, and a beautiful counterexample to those like me who argue that science is socially, collectively, and materially made.
So what to make of Hawking then—this iconic genius, who had lost the capacity to talk, and the use of his hands, and seemed to live only in his head? Was it really “all in his head”? This is the question I explored in my book: incredulous, but curious; interested in the myth, but thinking like a social scientist; respectful of the man, but ready to understand what allows him to think and produce theoretical work as a cosmologist. It is then that I started to reconstruct, one by one, what I call his “extended bodies.”
Unable to do anything by himself, Hawking had to delegate his competences to machines and humans who were doing for him what he couldn’t do alone. His disability was thus making visible what we normally don’t see and take for granted: the complex support without which not only Hawking—but anyone—would not be able to be and to think. The question was becoming, then, not who he was, but where he was in these multiple collectives, in his extended bodies. And he was definitely there.
Someone who can walk, when asked to give a lecture, can just jump on a train and go. For Hawking it typically took months of preparation before he could travel from one point of the planet to another. Even the questions that he would be asked had to be prepared in advance. Despite this orchestration, made possible by his many human and mechanical assistants—the people and things which in a sense choreographed his genius—the man would always surprise his audiences, making them, for example, wait for 15 minutes, only to respond to an elaborate question with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Writing an article for him was often the product of a close collaboration with his students. But more than once, though his students had spent months doing complex calculations, they would often underplay their own contributions and give credit instead to Hawking’s amazing intuition. Intuition? Thinking, you mean? Yes, of course, he was a master at thinking, but his thinking was aided by intellectual tools, such as diagrams, that were carefully crafted by his students who had learned his diagrammatic way of thinking. He would learn these diagrams, memorize them and think with them, as he couldn’t draw them by himself.
Yes, he was definitely there, resisting his entourage when they tried to convince him to change his software, his old program, Equalizer, that was painfully slow, but had become an extension of himself; or to change his American accent, which had become, as he liked to recall, part of his identity.
There was the Hawking who played with his audience by making them wait for 15 minutes to only say “yes” or “no.” The one who surprised me the first time I met him by telling me he would print our interviews directly from his computer, no need to record. The one who protested the white studio used in the documentary called The Hawking Paradox, because he thought it made him look dead.
But more than all of this, the image that will remain forever in my memory is Berlin. Hawking had flown from Cambridge with his assistants and a few students for an international gathering on string theory. The last night, after the meeting, we went to a fancy restaurant in Potsdam, where Churchill, Stalin, and Truman met to establish order on the world after the war. Stephen decided we should all go to a nightclub after dinner. Nobody really wanted to go; we were all tired. He was not, and so we went, dancing together till late in the night.