Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What would you do if you only had a year to live? 3 Lessons from the life of Stephen Hawking

What would you do if you only had a year or two to live? Seriously, take a pause from reading this article and think of how you would spend the last two years of your life if that's all you were left with.
Hawking (23) with his bride in 1965
Now my guess is that many of us would probably try to go the hedonistic route, i.e., we will try to fulfil as many of our pleasure-oriented desires. This may manifest in terms of drinking, seeking sexual gratification, or simply trying to check-off items from our bucket list, such as traveling to certain places in the world.  If we have big familial responsibilities, we may also try to earn as much money as possible before dying so that we can ensure some financial security for our family members when we are no more around to provide for them. That was certainly the theme of the hit TV show Breaking Bad. Some of us may also decide to simply spend more time with our loved ones, or if we are the religious kind, spend praying so that we have a better afterlife. Now I am not here to criticize any of these responses. In fact, all these responses may be valid in their own right. However, just because our response is reasonable does not mean that it is also optimal or the wisest response.

Stephen Hawking was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease, a disease where the death of motor neurons causes you to progressively lose control of all your muscles, ultimately reaching a point where you even fail to breathe and die. Hawking's doctors gave him about two years to live. We now know that Hawking went on the live till the age of 76, over half a century longer than what his doctors had predicted. This happened partly because Hawking suffered from a specific type of ALS that progressed much slower than the more common form of ALS, and also because of the technological advances that enabled him to stay alive with the help of machines.

Pursue your passion even if it were the last year of your life
Of course Hawking didn't know he would live so long. As would have happened to anyone of us in his situation, he went into a state of depression on receiving the news about the disease from the doctors. And he almost decided to drop out of the graduate school that he had recently enrolled in. However, after the initial phase of shock was over, he decided to continue his pursuit of Ph.D. with a renewed vigor. Now this may seem an unusual choice. But if you know that you enjoy science the most, why would you spent the last years of life any other way but in the pursuit of science?

So do you know what you are most passionate about? Are you spending the bulk of your current life pursuing that? Or are you simply dilly-dallying your life away? This may not be your last year of life, but it may very well be too. We will never know for sure until we are face to face with death. So why waste our life away? Or wait until the time when we are confronted with a fact that we have a year or two to live? Why not live our life as if it were our last year on Earth? Aren't we wasting our life if are living any other way?

Using a lot of technical jargons is not smart. Being able to communicate a complex topic in manner that an average man can understand is.
I learnt about Hawking for the first time when I was in my high school. That was the time when multiple copies of his most famous book A Brief History of Time had arrived at the city library where I grew up. The librarian who was a good friend of mine recommended me the book. I picked up Hawking's book with excitement, but I must confess that I found it a hard read, and did not also complete the book. However, that was a reflection of my lacunae in comprehension rather than Hawking's lacunae in expressing things simply; I know this for sure in retrospection.

There have been many great scientists throughout history, but very few of them have also been successful in communicating their ideas to the general public. Now a scientist need not take up the role of disseminating knowledge to the public. However, when they do and do it effectively, they help immensely in popularizing science.

My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Philip Podsakoff, who is one of the top 3 most highly cited management researchers in the world, used to say, "You should have so much clarity about your research that you should be able to explain it to your grandma in a manner that even she understands it." Needless to say, some of our grandmas may be extremely knowledgeable and may easily be able to delve into the depths of our research. So my professor's intention was not to make any gendered statements. He simply was describing the characteristics of a good thinker. A good thinker is not stuck in technical jargons and equations, and can easily express the main ideas of a complex topic in a manner that even an average person with no technical knowledge can understand it. But irrespective of how good or bad we may be in expressing complex ideas in simple and clear ways, we all can improve.

Scientific research is difficult but it need not be devoid of fun. Just don't take yourself too seriously.
Stephen Hawking once hosted a big party at his university. He had written out invitations to many people for that party, including his colleagues and many other famous scientists. Unfortunately, no one showed up to the party. The reason was simply because Hawking sent out the invitations only after the party was over. He did this to playfully make the point that time-travel is not possible. His logic was that if time-travel were possible, then people from the future would have known about his party and somebody from the future should have showed up at his party through time-travel.

Hawking may have lived most of his life as a quadriplegic, dependent on machines for his survival and to communicate with the world, but that did not diminish his verve for having fun and cracking jokes. He is known to have placed several bets with some of his colleagues on competing theories. Despite his genius brain, he was not always right and lost some of those bets. One of the famous bets he lost was to John Preskill from Caltech, where Preskill's argument that information could escape from Black Holes was found to be true. Hawking had argued the contrary, and conceded his defeat by buying Preskill an encyclopedia of baseball for Preskill. Such friendly competitions not only helped in the progress of science but also made the pursuit of science fun. Unfortunately, not all of us pursue science with a spirit of play. So we can all learn a lot from Hawking. If a great mind such as Hawking didn't take himself too seriously, what excuse do we have? We are all fallible. So instead of justifying our faulty research or hiding it, we need to learn to acknowledge it and even celebrate our failures. That's the only way science can move forward.

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