THE BLOG
15/03/2018 11:30 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 11:30 GMT

Playing The Clarinet For Stephen Hawking

Professor Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the New York Times:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

This encapsulates both his tremendous sense of humour, and the immense success of his many personal and professional endeavours over the physical limitations of Motor Neurone Disease.

I was fortunate to study in the same college where Stephen Hawking worked as a Fellow: walking past his office on the way to dinner, sometimes eating in the same hall. It always felt surreal to live and study in the same place as this scientific luminary, and I spent many awe-struck dinners manoeuvring through the long students’ tables in a rather unseemly way so that I could catch a glimpse at how he uses his computer-based communication system.

Every so often, he used to join the students in the college bar where he might have been sipping a soft drink or talking to students.  It took a few terms to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with him, and he graciously obliged. Indeed, Professor Hawking never gave the impression of an aloof celebrity scientist, he always seemed to be an authentically down-to-earth man who appreciated life and the people around him.

Own photo
Stephen Hawking, myself and a friend

His self-deferential style of comedy is a feature of his many cameos on popular television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and Futurama. He knowingly portrayed himself as a petty, self-important egotist in these and routinely stole the show. One of his funniest recent gigs was his retort to satirist John Oliver’s question “Does that mean that there is a universe our there where I am smarter than you”was “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny”.

Nevertheless, arguably the greatest testament to his character remains how he tirelessly fought over the last few years in support of the National Health Service. His robust defence of the NHS, without which he said “I wouldn’t be here today” turned to a clinical attack of politicians in a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine where he warned of a “US-style insurance system” being brought about by ministers cutting funds and privatising the healthcare service. Alongside the NHS, he also battled to safeguard science funding and recruitment following the UK’s EU referendum decision. As I work in medicine, this elevated his status in my mind from a hero to a kind of mythic entity: he was spending his sunset years fighting for what he believed was right, with the fire in his soul burning brighter than ever.

“The NHS is Britain’s finest public service and the cornerstone of our society. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.”

My most vivid memory of Professor Hawking is from playing clarinet in a College Orchestra concert during my first term. I had been tasked with performing the solo from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, but had not quite expected Stephen Hawking to be sitting directly opposite me. My nerves combined with a lazy embouchure and resulted in a largely squeaked segment, which seemed to last an eternity. I looked at Professor Hawking but could not deduce his thoughts as I massacred a classic English piece in my first (and last) performance.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”