Source / Courtesy: Globe and Mail
I recently gave Stephen Hawking a boomerang. It was an odd gift to give the world’s most famous scientist, but Stephen immediately understood its significance.
When I gave it to him, he flashed me the same wise, slightly mischievous grin that I had sought – and was occasionally rewarded with – when I was a rather intimidated young doctoral candidate under his supervision at Cambridge nearly 30 years ago.
What I discovered about Stephen back then, and what I still admire now, is that his intellect and stamina are rivalled only by his irrepressible sense of humour.
Hence the boomerang. It was an inside joke nearly three decades in the making. To understand its punchline, we must boomerang ourselves back to 1983.
In the late fall of that year, I nearly dropped out of my physics studies at Cambridge, fully convinced I was going to flunk my freshman year anyway. But after my father summarized my prospects as a dropout – flipping burgers back home in Quebec, as he put it – I decided to give my studies one last shot.
It was gruelling. I studied around the clock, depriving myself of any semblance of a social life. Apart from my once-weekly bicycle ride around Cambridge, I was practically an invisible man.
But someone, it turned out, had noticed me. The day our final exam scores were revealed – in a Draconian ritual during which all students’ test scores were read aloud in a courtyard for all to hear – a classmate approached me. “Professor Hawking would like to see you,” he said.
My stomach flip-flopped. “Prof. Hawking,” I thought, “wants to see me?” This was a terrifying development.
The world at large had not yet learned of Stephen’s genius, but we Cambridge students were certainly aware of it, and unanimously in awe of it. As I slowly descended the stone staircase toward his office, I was certain he’d be able to hear my knees nervously knocking together.
Stephen, it seems, had got wind that my exam scores were at the top of the class, and he wanted to see if I’d make a good doctoral candidate to take under his wing.
I don’t remember much about the conversation that ensued, but what I do recall is that Stephen gave me a list of books and papers to read over the summer and said he’d see me in the fall.