Stephen Hawking: Remembering the cox ‘with his head in the stars’

Undergraduate, Stephen Hawking, and the University College, Oxford, crew that he coxed to victory in the 1960 – 1961 ‘Novice EIghts’, an inter-Oxford college race for first-year students. They are pictured on their college barge.

14 March 2018

Tim Koch joins in the tributes.

The world-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, has died at the age of 76. He was famed for his work with black holes and relativity and wrote several best-selling (though perhaps little understood) science books including A Brief History of Time. At the age of 22, Professor Hawking was given only a few years to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease. The illness eventually left him in a wheelchair and largely unable to speak except through a voice synthesiser. It is indicative of how much he enjoyed his celebrity status (appearing in popular programmes such as The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek) that he did not ‘upgrade’ his then trademark synthetic voice to something more human when the opportunity became available. It is, of course, ironic that such a popularist should produce work  that few of us can begin to properly comprehend.

I first wrote about Hawking the cox in December 2011, in a piece speculating about a curious bit of memorabilia, a rowing blade illuminated with the names of Nobel Prize winners: ‘I will…. suggest a coxswain, sculler and rower who many think should have won the Nobel Physics Prize, but who, so far, has not. He is Professor Stephen Hawking. On his website he says of his Oxford days’:

‘I took up coxing and rowing. I was not Boat Race standard but I got by at the level of inter-College competition’.

Hawking in the cox’s seat for University College’s 2nd Eight, c.1961. Rowing was one of the things that he took up when he became bored with studying ‘ridiculously easy’ physics.

This is from Stephen Hawking: Physicist and Educator (2004) by Bernard Ryan:

A River Changes Stephen’s Personality.

Stephen’s undergraduate days at Oxford were taking him deep into the study of both general relativity and quantum physics, but he found himself bored and unchallenged…. after a year or so of little social activity, he discovered a centuries-old Oxford tradition: the sport of rowing… His strong voice and lightweight made him an ideal coxswain….

(The college boatman), Norman Dix, thought Hawking was a skilled coxswain but noticed that he showed no interest in trying to become cox of the first boat…. Stephen also had a daredevil way of sometimes steering his boat through gaps so narrow that the shell returned to the boathouse with its blades damaged. ‘Half the time I got the distinct impression,’ Dix later recalled, ‘that he was sitting in the stern of the boat with his head in the stars, working out mathematical formulae.’

Being a crew coxswain changed both Stephen’s personality and his social life. He became a popular member of the ‘in crowd’, enjoying parties and participating in boisterous practical jokes after strenuous rowing practices….

David Firth, who rowed at two in Hawking’s crew, later recalled:

We were an appalling collection of individuals who didn’t train much so I knew Stephen as a very determined leader who made sure that our boat performed far better than any of us dared expect because he wasn’t going to let us get away with a casual ride.

Actor Eddie Redmayne playing Hawking the cox in the 2014 film, “The Theory of Everything”.

Kristine Larsen, author of Stephen Hawking: A Biography (2007), notes the price the young student paid for his devotion to rowing:

Stephen had to balance his time between his studies…. and his time on the river. Rowing demanded many hours of practice, six afternoons a week, which cut into the time he was supposed to spend doing experiments in his laboratory course. According to Gordon Berry (a fellow cox and physicist), he and Stephen cut serious corners in taking data, faking their way through parts of the experiments by using creative analysis to write their lab reports.

Larsen also describes Hawking’s last year at Oxford when he noticed that he was becoming increasingly uncoordinated and clumsy: ‘He also found that he had difficulty rowing [sic] a sculling boat’.

Why has Stephen Hawking not received a Nobel Prize? Under the rules of the Prize Committee, any theory must be experimentally validated. Hawking’s big theories have not yet been proven. By the same rule, Einstein did not get a prize for his Theory of Relativity.

In conclusion, we can speculate that, if Hawking had spent less time on the river, perhaps he would have a Nobel Prize and we would have time travel.

In 2015, I visited Cambridge to watch the May Bumps. I was shown around Gonville and Caius College, where Professor Hawking was a Fellow, by Brie Stark, Captain of Boats. This picture shows Brie by the stairs to Hawking’s study (though a lift was installed for his use).

In September 2013, I wrote about Hawking’s autobiographyMy Brief History (Bantam Press, 2013), then recently published:

The publishers tell us, ’For the first time, Stephen Hawking turns his gaze inward for a revealing look at his own life and intellectual evolution. My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his post-war London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty and candid account introduces readers to the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him ‘Einstein’; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a black hole; and the young husband and father striving to gain a foothold in the world of academia’.

The book’s cover shows a splendid picture of the members of University College Boat Club doing the sort of things that students do when you point a camera at them. Hawking stands out, even before Photoshop highlighted his figure.
The full picture of the University College Boat Club in 1961. It is a very masculine world, some of the chaps could have come straight from pre-war Brideshead, while others were more a product of the Beat Generation.

Time is certainly brief, but, even if the odds are stacked against them, people like Professor Stephen Hawking make more of it than most.

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