What Can We Learn from Very Smart People?
The Relationship between Genius and Guts.

I have written half a dozen articles about Albert Einstein in the past couple of years. He was a genius, and everyone respected him. However, in my parent's generation, they had an emotional closeness to him. He died when I was twelve. Therefore, while I admire him, I did not experience firsthand following his work in science as my parent's generation did.

In addition, I was not emotionally invested in his efforts related to warning America about the atomic bomb and Hitler's wanting to create one. Einstein wrote to FDR in August 1939 about his concern. I understand it from teaching history...but it was history for me.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

I also appreciate Einstein's interest in addressing imagination. I have written about how he valued imagination over even science and logic. My two favorite quotes are "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." The other is similar, "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." I actually grasp both comments, however do not ask me to explain E=mc?.

Now that I am in my early 70s, there are other scientists to whom I can emotional relate. I wrote to Carl Sagan about one of his Cosmos programs, and he personally responded. Another scientist is Neil Tyson who is this generation's Sagan.

 Carl Sagan Neil Tyson
Carl Sagan Neil Tyson

However, the one about which I want to share with you is Stephen Hawking. While he is certainly a genius, of equal importance, he has guts. He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This disease progresses very fast. Usually, within a handful of years, the patient dies after onset of ALS. However, Hawking has lived for a half century since the onset of ALS. Hawking dedicated his life to science. He has not allowed death to overtake his shear will to contribute to society.

A genius with guts

A genius with guts

One of the things that tied me to Hawking is that he is almost exactly a year older than I am. He was born on January 8, 1942, and I was born on January 20, 1943. Now, I have the distinction of being born on the same day as George Burns and both days that Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. However, Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death. Interestingly, there seems a strange quirk that the date one great scientist dies another is born three centuries later.

Hawking and Einstein both had some problems in school. Einstein, who was the greatest scientist in the 20th century, graduated from what we call high school with less than half his grades being excellent.

This was essentially his high school diploma when he was 17. The grading scale was 1-6 and 6 was excellent.

This was essentially his high school diploma when he was 17.
The grading scale was 1-6 and 6 was excellent.

When Hawking was nine, his grades were near the bottom of his class. However, everyone from Hawking's teachers to his fellow classmates called him Einstein.

Stephen Hawking liked both math and science at Oxford. He especially liked cosmology even though it was not considered the most significant part of science. When he was twenty-one, he knew of his ALS. Interestingly, Hawking benefited from the emotional and physical pain associated with ALS. It spurred Jane Wilde and Hawking to marry. She referred to the illness as their "nuclear cloud." They addressed the issue of the possibility of their short time together and got married. Hawking taught us to plan for the future but to act also in the present. The balancing act between the future and present is a critical learning for each of us.

Another thing to which I give Hawking credit was that he was able to process ALS as it related to issues beyond his own personal life. While in the hospital being treated, he dealt with his personal problem once he saw young boy dying due to leukemia.

Another admirable thing that Hawking has done was to co-author a book for children with Lucy, his daughter. Their book, George's Secret Key to the Universe, is about the adventures of George, his daughter, and Cosmos, which is a super-computer. The book is the first in a trilogy about George learning about various things like the black hole in the vastness of the universe.

The authors of George's Secret Key to the Universe

The authors of George's Secret Key to the Universe

Hawking also addresses the issue of space aliens. Several years ago at NASA's 50th anniversary observance, Hawking mixed reality with humor. "Primitive life is very common, and intelligent life is very rare." Then he quipped about intelligent life on Earth, "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth." If you wish to learn even more about Hawking's predictions of the future, visit Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking.

Stephan Hawking's website