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Interview

Beyond the myth: Bruce Allen on Stephen Hawking

Bruce Allen is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hanover, Germany. His Ph.D. supervisor was Stephen Hawking, with whom he developed a long-lasting friendship.

Deutsche Welle: Can you still remember when you met Stephen Hawking for the first time?

Bruce Allen: The first time I met Stephen personally was when I began as a graduate student. I went to Cambridge, checked into the college and then I went to the department. Stephen came in and I was introduced to him. We chatted for a couple of minutes. I couldn’t understand him because his voice was very monotonic. It took about a year before I learned to understand him. But I was struck by his eyes and by how lively he was. Stephen, especially when you get to know him, speaks a lot with his eyes.

What did you expect?

I really didn’t know what to expect. I was very happy to find out that Stephen was a very normal, approachable person. And that he was very eager to interact with students and other scientists. So in fact it was very easy to become a student and to work with him. I had an easy interaction.

At first when I met him I thought it was going to be depressing to be around him. I mean he is so ill and he is so confined. And yet I actually found it quite inspiring. He has to struggle with things that we take for granted but it doesn’t get him down. He is able to go beyond his problems, his sufferings, his disability. And that’s inspiring to me.

USA Stephen Hawking in New York (picture alliance/dpa/EPA/J. Szenes)

In April 2016, Hawking introduced the new space exploration initiative "Breakthrough Starshot"

Stephen is a visionary. I think it was the American philosopher Emerson who said: "The mind travels far when the body stays at home." Stephen takes this, I think, to a new level. Because he is so confined physically, he only has his mind to free him and he uses it very successfully. As a person he is very charismatic, he is a lot of fun. It’s enjoyable to spend time with him.

A universe in a nutshell…

Maybe humanity in a nutshell, yeah! Stephen is a remarkably strong person. He gave me a new respect for strong people because his life is a constant battle. It’s a battle against practical things. It’s also a bit of a battle against humiliation. It’s difficult to lead a dignified life when you are so confined. And yet, Stephen manages to do that. He’s come to terms with his illness and decided that there is nothing you can do about it. But the things that he can do something about, which is his thoughts, how he interacts with people - those are things he does care about. And he has a tremendous sense of humor.

What was it like being Stephen Hawking's student?

Our working life centered around the tea room. Stephen would come in to work in the morning, drive in his electric wheel chair from home to the office. He’d spent the day there. We got to know him quite well because we were helping to look after him during the day. I did Tuesdays for several years. And so I’d help him to get books, to read things, to do calculations, just assistance.

I spent a lot of time with him and we became friends. I was often around Stephen’s house when I was a student. One of the things that was fun to see was Stephen with his kids. He has three children, Timmy, Robert and Lucy. At the time I became a student the youngest of them, Timmy, was just a few years old. Stephen would take Timmy for rides on his electric wheelchair. So Timmy could stand on the foot rests, for example. And then Stephen would drive him around at high speed. Timmy loved this.

I remember that when I was a student, it was the era when personal computers were just coming out, like the Commodore 64 and the BBC computer. The BBC was doing a program about Stephen. And so some people sent him one of the BBC personal computers. And when he got this I remember the entire research group could see Stephen spent the week playing Pac Man [laughing] on the computer. And he was very enthusiastically involved. And I still remember him shouting: "Turn left!!! Turn left!!!" He got very good at Pac Man in the space of about a week and then he lost interest.

Can I tell you another funny story?

Sure!

One day in the tea room Stephen says: Does anybody have a driver’s license? And I being American had gotten a driver’s license when I was 16 or 17. So I said: "I do!" Stephen said: "Well, that’s very nice. Tomorrow I have to give a talk at the Royal Society. So could you please drive me to London?" I said: "Sure, okay."

The next day I went to Stephen's house. We put his wheelchair in the back. Stephen wanted to sit in the front to give directions. Which was fine, except that I couldn't really understand him. I had not yet learned to understand him at that point. The other thing that I hadn’t counted on was the fact that of course, in the Unites States you drive on the right side of the road. So there I was, driving from Cambridge to London with somebody sitting on my right, giving me directions that I could not understand. Driving on the wrong side of the road… [laughing] It was quite an adventure.

I quickly settled on a survival strategy along the lines of "When there are no cars it doesn't matter which side of the road you drive on. If there are cars then you follow them." And that worked very well. Somehow I got Stephen there. I think he did get upset with me a couple of times because I was not going the way that he wanted. [laughing] But we made it there. He gave his lecture and we made it home again.

How is Stephen Hawking doing now?

When I was a student Stephen had a very radiant smile. It’s very difficult for him to move his face muscles now. Even his face is now quite paralyzed, so he can really only move his eyes. The last time I saw him was in February. I sat next to him to have a conversation. But unfortunately it’s very slow. I can still read a lot in his eyes, though, that speeds things up. I can often guess what he's going to say. He can smile with his eyes, so I can see it that way. But Steven is not so expressive these days. His body doesn't respond anymore.

In the public eye Stephen Hawking is kind of a legend…..

I believe that he is the longest surviving person with this illness by a long time. So this is really something very admirable, a world record of a kind. And then the fact that in spite of these limitations he has been able to be such a creative and influential scientist - he has really had some impact on our world! I think that’s also remarkable. So I guess in my mind some of the myth surrounding him is justified.

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