Professor Stephen Hawking is best known for ideas that encouraged us to dream beyond the frontiers of the imagination. Aside from his brilliant research papers he is remembered for making science accessible to people through works such as A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell and A Briefer History of Time.
Professor Hawking’s contributions to science do not need any introduction. In this blog I would like to talk instead about his ability to inspire people, even those outside the scientific community. I had the privilege to meet him at the 11th annual Andrew Chamblin Memorial Lecture in May 2017, at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Cambridge. Professor Hawking had come to listen to Professor Kip Thorne’s lecture, ‘LIGO and Beyond – Exploring the Universe with Gravitational Waves'. What struck me was the effort that Thorne was putting into making his lecture understandable for people from all disciplines. It immediately took me back in time to 2003 when I first read Professor Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time.
As the lecture ended I went over to Professor Hawking and told him that he had taught me the most invaluable lesson, that our physical bodies and social limitations cannot limit our dreams. When I read A Brief History of Time I was in a very difficult marriage that claimed all my confidence and agency. I remember as I read through his book and understood it that I regained my confidence. I learned more about Professor Hawking’s life and took inspiration from his journey. Since then I have met many people who claim that his work had the same effect on their lives.
In his biographies he often attributes his success to the medical condition that left him physically immobile, declaring that it pushed him to achieve more. As his condition worsened, he became more adept at working harder and achieving the heights of his academic potential. In a way, his mental agency increased as he lost control of his body. Despite his physical immobility he was a space traveller who could transport himself anywhere in time and space.
Professor Hawking’s life makes me reflect on my PhD research which focuses on women’s agency and their daughters’ education in Pakistan. I often come across examples where women exercise their agency in the most constrained environments. This behaviour is not unique to women, as Professor Elaine Unterhalter highlights in her study of revolutionaries in island prisons (including Nelson Mandela). People sometimes exhibit extraordinary skills when they live in constrained circumstances. This phenomenon is similar to the ‘negative capabilities’ that the poet John Keats believes are ‘the qualities that form a man (woman) of achievement’. To him negative capability is ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason’.
In the light of this concept, personal agency appears as a consequence of adversity and sometimes leads to unforeseen success, as witnessed in the case of Professor Hawking and the women in my research. Struggles, like traumatic experiences, breed uncertainties and doubts but from these doubts some people are able to deepen their understanding of self and exercise agency to reach their goals. Such people have the negative capability to accept their limitations and sprint towards their goals, inspiring others to work towards theirs. What is it that people with negative capability offer others, I often ask myself? Is it the message of hope that is transmitted so successfully to others?
*Aliya Khalid  is doing a PhD in Education. Picture credit: Wikipedia.