Stephen Hawking’s best friend: ‘He was the big bang in my life’

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HE WAS the best-known theoretical physicist of his time whose brilliant mind ranged across time and space despite his body being paralysed by disease before he died at the age of 76.

Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s finest scientific minds, passed away peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Robert Donovan, Elaine, Stephen Hawking and Robert Hawking

Robert Donovan, Elaine, Stephen Hawking and Robert Hawking

His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. But for Prof Hawking’s best man at both his weddings, Professor Robert Donovan, 76, the news brought nothing short of devastation despite knowing his close friend was deteriorating since December.

Prof Donovan said: “We were very close and it was a privilege to have known him. It was always interesting to speaking with him. He could be controversial and when I first met him I thought he was eccentric. He taught me so much. He just always had ideas. He was a fascinating guy and was very modest about what he knew. He was a great teacher and loved communicating to people.

“I last spoke to Stephen in December when he invited me to a dinner party and he knew he did not have long to go. I was devastated to hear he was going downhill rapidly.

“Finding out he had passed away was heartbreaking. He was my best friend and I will miss him so much.”

Prof Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford – the eldest of four children – and went on to become one of the world’s most acclaimed cosmologists.

Even though his body was attacked by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, when Prof Hawking was 21, he stunned doctors by living with the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years.

Hawking first earned prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as “Hawking radiation.” Prof Donovan met Prof Hawking when the pair were at Trinity Hall College together in Cambridge 55 years ago. From the moment the pair met, they were inseparable with both going on to become each other’s best man at their respective weddings.

Prof Hawking’s son Robert is named after Prof Donovan. Meanwhile the Dalkeith resident’s daughter shares the same name as Prof Hawking’s first wife Jane.

Prof Hawking was the first person Prof Donovan met when he arrived at his new home in Cambridge during his studies. He was going to go a PhD in reaction dynamics while Prof Hawking was completing a PhD in singularities.

He said: “We lived in the same late Victorian college house. He could still walk really slowly at this stage.

“I parked outside and rang the door bell. There was no answer so I tried round the back and I saw Stephen Hawking playing croquet. The gamekeeper was out shopping so he invited me to his room, put some music on and he made me a cup of tea. I tasted it and it was terrible. It turned out it was green tea, which was not very common in those days. He would speak to me until two or three in the morning. It was OK for him. He didn’t have to go into the labs early the next morning and just slept until midday.”

The pair put forward a proposal to measure gravitational waves in the 1960s but unfortunately the funding they applied for was rejected.

Prof Hawking tied the knot twice in his life, firstly to Jane Wilde in 1965 and then to nurse Elaine Madson in 1995. On both occasions he turned to Prof Donovan to be his best man, with him returning the favour for his marriage.

He said: “It was an honour to be Stephen’s best man. His second marriage to Elaine he was trying to keep a secret. He had a wedding at a registry office and the blessing the next day in church. On the day of the service it was unbelievable. There must have been 50 reporters, photographers and TV cameras there wanting the story. When we got to the reception I mentioned to Stephen that the service the next day would be a nightmare. However he said to me ‘tomorrow, I’ll be yesterday’s news’. And he was right.”

A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesiser that gave him his distinctive robotic monotone. Despite his disabilities, he continued to travel the world giving science lectures and writing scientific papers about the basic laws which govern the universe.

This included Edinburgh where he gave at least three lectures over the years with the most recent in 2000 in front of a packed out McEwan Hall.

He said: “His lectures were mostly pre-recorded with his voice synthesiser. But he knew when to pause to put in a joke or to put in relevant information regarding that area. He would ask me about the football with Hibs and Hearts.

“When he was in Edinburgh he loved to see the sights including the Botanic Gardens.”

John moved to Edinburgh in 1970 to take up a lecture role at Edinburgh University, a position Prof Hawking was instrumental in him taking.

He would go on to become a professor and is now a senior honorary professorial fellow of the university. Despite Prof Hawking’s achievements, he always had time for his best friend and showed a keen interest in his research.

He said: “He had a phenomenal memory. He would remind me about events in my life even that I wouldn’t remember. It is a real shame he was not able to fulfil his ambition to have an equation that summarises the interventions from atoms and molecules through to the stars.

“I lived with him for two years and the only regret I have from leaving Cambridge was that I had to leave Stephen behind.

“He was a singularity. The universe started with a singularity with the big bang. He was the big bang in my life.”