On the Death of Stephen Hawking

Cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and author Stephen Hawking has died at his home in Cambridge at age 76. Ian Sample's obituary for Hawking at the Guardian is very good.

My condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and admirers around the world. And, to be fair, possibly in other worlds. Should there be intelligent life out there watching, I feel it's safe to say they were fans of Professor Hawking, if they are fans of any humans at all.

It seems trite to say there were many things to admire about Professor Hawking: He was an extraordinary physicist, an accomplished author, and a disabled person with a transgressive body whose very willingness to be visible and heard was a radical act, regardless of whether he desired it to be so.

He was a man of science who was certain of some things and eminently willing to change his mind, when additional information warranted it. I was always deeply admiring that he changed his position on assisted death for terminal ill people, carefully caveating his support with respect to consent.

[Content Note: Misogyny] But if I'm to be entirely honest, for the past six years, the thing — at least one thing — I always thought of when I encountered Hawking's name was this:
In an interview to mark his 70th birthday this weekend, Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, admitted he spent most of the day thinking about women. "They are," he said "a complete mystery."
Misogyny is never neutral; I am never indifferent to encountering it. But there was something particularly troubling to me, hurtful, about a man who spent a lifetime contemplating the universe and endeavoring to make it accessible to people without his innate talents or superior education, only to declare women "a complete mystery."

To be somehow more unknowable than the universe is distressing. To be known is to be safe. Thus, to be unknowable is to be permanently unmoored; forever in a state without the comfort and security — and justice — that being scrutable, being accepted, provides.

It can be a cruel thing to tell someone they cannot be deciphered, can never be understood.

I realize that men who say women are a mystery often intend it as a compliment, or at least not a devised harm. (And I realize that many women receive it as a compliment, as we are encouraged to do.) But it is alienating, at best. Not just different, but other.

Hawking was inspiring to countless scientists. I can only imagine how much that comment must have rattled many female scientists who looked up to him.

I suspect that many of those female scientists are having complicated feelings today, about a man who both invited them to explore the vastness of the universe and also made them feel small.

There are places all over the internet today that will be celebrating Hawking without acknowledging such complications, where any woman who wanted to talk about the loss of someone who simultaneously awed her and diminished her would be accused of shitting all over the legacy of a great man or speaking ill of the dead.

This is not one of those places. Professor Hawking was a complicated human being, like all others, and you may have complicated feelings here.

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