The word “intellectual” has become a dirty one in our culture, and scientists, artists and academics suspect. But there is no greatness in this world without great thinking.
Stephen Hawking – the transcendent English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and mathematician, who died Wednesday, March 14 at age 76 after battling motor neuron disease his entire adult life – had, of course, a great mind, one that bridged Einstein and quantum theory and unspooled the narrative of the universe. But as with Jean-Dominique Bauby, the paralyzed journalist who wrote "The Butterfly and the Diving Bell" using only the movement of his left eyelid, a transcriber and partner assisted scanning, Hawking showed what you can do with a mind, not just a brain, but a mind.
"The mind is its own place," John Milton's Lucifer wrote in his 17th century epic poem "Paradise Lost," "and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
Milton means to show us the monstrousness of Satan, and mind over matter can indeed be monstrous. (Think the Nazis.) But there is another way to look at this. Hawking pointed the way. He was confined to a wheelchair. Yet in his mind, he was free, roaming the cosmos. Now he is truly free, returned to the elements whose mysteries absorbed his life.
It is for us who remain earthbound to understand that you can overcome great obstacles and live your life to the fullest, not someone else’s life, not the life in a magazine spread but your life, if you have the brain, heart, will, courage – the mind – to do it.