Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Stephen Hawking visited Cornell in 1965 during the second week of his honeymoon.

March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking Said His Visit to Cornell Was ‘A Mistake,’ But His Legacy Inspires Professors

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When Stephen W. Hawking, the famous British physicist who studied black holes and other cosmological wonders, visited Ithaca more than 50 years ago, it didn’t go well.

Hawking, who died on Tuesday at 76, arrived in Ithaca in 1965 with his wife at the time, Jane, in the second week of their honeymoon for summer school. The trip to Cornell was “a mistake,” Hawking recalled in a memoir, in part because the third floor of the dormitory they stayed in was designated for families.

“Although some of the toddlers were undeniably appealing,” Jane later wrote, “a stay in a mammoth nursery was not what we had expected.”

“We stayed in a dormitory that was full of couples with noisy small children,” Hawking wrote in My Brief History, “and it put quite a strain on our marriage.”

Hawking, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, at 21, also had a difficult time getting around Cornell, Jane wrote. She said Hawking’s struggles to get to lectures on time, which required her to accompany him nearly everywhere, forced her to realize for the first time how debilitated Hawking was by ALS.

The couple had never discussed the disease, at Dr. Hawking’s request, until he suffered from a sudden choking fit during a chilly Ithaca night, according to Stephen Hawking: A Biography, by Prof. Kristine Larsen, astrophysics, Central Connecticut State University.

“The demonic nature of the illness had announced its presence much more dramatically than in lameness, difficulty of movement, and lack of coordination,” Jane recalled in Travelling to Infinity, a revision of her 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen Hawking.

Jane said she was left “shocked and helpless.”

At one point, Jane wrote, the couple was left “wondering whether we were doomed to spend the whole period of the summer school confined to the campus of Cornell University and the third floor of the hall of residence.”

But while his brief stay at Cornell nearly 53 years ago was a rough, if critical, time in Hawking’s life, his vision and discoveries have inspired a younger generation of Cornellians to explore the unknown and disseminate what they learn.

On Wednesday, the day after Hawking died in Cambridge, professors remembered how his groundbreaking research had affected their careers.

The director of the Carl Sagan Institute, Prof. Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomy, joined Hawking among six speakers at a conference at The Pontifical Academy of Science in Vatican City in 2016. She said in an interview that while Hawking was not able to easily interact with people, it was a great honor to even be in the same room with him.

Kaltenegger said Hawking has inspired her since she was a young girl and that she quickly shared the 2016 experience with her mother.

“I texted my mom and said, ‘Mommy, you won’t believe this, I just gave a talk in the same session as Stephen Hawking!’” Kaltenegger said, laughing. “It’s like giving a talk in the same [room] as Albert Einstein.”

She recalled being a student in high school and presenting one of Hawking’s books to her physics class. Kaltenegger said it not only blew her 15-year-old mind with its discussion of the imaginary time theory, but also served as an important reminder to make scientific knowledge as accessible as possible.

“He made the cosmo something everybody could get a glimpse at … and be part of,” she said. “I think that is what we all strive for as researchers and professors, [and] that is also what Sagan pioneered here at Cornell.”

Prof. Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering, serves as an advisor to the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which is overseen by a board on which Hawking — as well as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — served.

Peck said Dr. Hawking’s “spirited support of this audacious project” — which is working toward laying the foundation for a launch to Alpha Centauri, a neighboring star system — led Peck to admire Hawking even more.

“Stephen Hawking was brilliant, of course, but also innovative,” Peck said in an email to The Sun. “It was a tremendous honor for me to serve with him as an advisor to the … project.

“This project is an effort to send a probe to a nearby star, which would teach us so much about the universe that Hawking helped unravel,” he wrote.

A scientist all his life, Hawking will be remembered more for allowing the average person to understand complicated matters like black holes than for his advanced theories, which have inspired thousands of scientists, Kaltenegger said.

“Aside from all his scientific accomplishments, it is an incredible thing to do — [to] inspire people to be curious,” she said. “I’m sure this is the biggest thing he’ll be known for.”

Shruti Juneja ’20 and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed research to this article.