8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018
The physicist’s former research student recalls their close relationship at Cambridge, the sheer might of his intellect, and how he once bored the great man to sleep
Stephen was not so famous when I began my PhD at Cambridge in 1972, but his brilliance was already clear to his peers and I found it rather daunting when, on becoming his research student, I was informed by one of my tutors that he was the brightest person in the department. Nevertheless, it soon became evident that my relationship with him would not be the usual type of supervisor-student relationship. In those days, before he had his entourage of nurses and assistants, students would necessarily have to help him in various ways on account of his disability. This was not an arduous task, but it did mean that my relationship with him became quite intimate. Indeed, I shared an office with him, lived with his family for a while and accompanied him as he travelled around the world, giving talks and collecting medals.
I soon discovered some of Stephen’s singular characteristics. The first, of course, was that he was very smart. Students are probably always in awe of their supervisors and with Stephen the awe was even greater. Indeed, on matters of physics, I always regarded him as an oracle, just a few words from him yielding insights that would have taken weeks to work out on my own. However, Stephen was only human and not all encounters led to illumination. Once I asked a question about something that was puzzling me. He thought about it silently for several minutes and I was quite impressed with myself for asking something that Stephen couldn’t answer immediately. His eyes then closed and I was even more impressed with myself because he was clearly having to think about it very deeply. Only after some time did it become clear that he had fallen asleep. Nowadays, I also sometimes fall asleep while talking to students, so I recall this incident with amusement.