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  • Max Stearns

Pi Day and Shakespearean Sonnets: A Brief Tribute to Stephen Hawking

Although I am saddened to learn that Professor Stephen Hawking passed away today, March 14, Pi day, at the age of 76, the date could not be more appropriate. Pi, an irrational number, endures infinitely and contains all number combinations. If we imagine all knowledge coded numerically, this one number contains the answers to life's greatest mysteries. The answers simply await our discovery.

Hawking was a truly remarkable man. Having been diagnosed as a graduate student with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, at the age of 21, Hawking confronted a life of crippling disability. Many persons would have have succumbed to deep despair, perhaps depression, knowing that they faced chronic incapacity and endless dependency on others. Hawking instead became master of the most theoretical of disciplines, exploring the depths of the universe in the one thing possibly greater than the cosmos itself--the human mind.

I've long imagined that Hawking's brilliance was interconnected with his profound physical limitations. I certainly don't wish to imply that he would not have been remarkable had he led a more normal life, but I suspect that his limitation affected how he developed as a theoretical physicist. I imagine that Hawking conceptualized at increasing levels of abstraction as a way to maintain relationships and framings in his mind without the constant an immediate need to depend on others to jot down, calculate, and prove his deepest insights. That kind of mechanical work could always come later; the real work was constant and ongoing, unencumbered by his physical disability. I also suspect that Hawking was a highly visual thinker. His capacity to convey intricate concepts to those of us with no theoretical grounding in his field demands the power to see the world as others, far less brilliant than he, might see and understand it.

I'll leave to others in his field to write in more detail about his incredible academic achievements. As a theoretical physicist, Hawking earned countless accolades, save one: the elusive Nobel Prize in Physics. This apparently had more to do with the unavailability of modern technology that might confirm or disconfirm the existence of Hawking Radiation than with the quality of that or of Hawking's other brilliant insights. Those insights might well take another generation, or more, to verify empirically, and this one prize is not posthumously awarded.

The very first academic piece that I wrote when I started teaching law in 1992 was titled "Poetic Law: A Statement on Intent." The conceit was a series of twenty-one Shakespearean Sonnets about constitutional jurisprudence. I had just read Hawking's popular work, A Brief History of Time, and I saw connections between his explanation of the big bang and the development of Constitutional Law within the United States. This became thematic, and it was the focus of two sonnets in particular: VIII and XXI (the finale). I wonder if Professor Hawking would have been surprised to learn that his unique way to explaining the cosmos helped this Professor of Constitutional Law gain insight into such a remote field, and one that, like Hawking with theoretical physics, I too have grown to love.


Perhaps the Framers at the start of time

Knew that the text invented would expand,

And like the critics' prose on Shakespeare's rhyme,

Interpretations too would gain command.

The universe, so large, we're told, was small,

Before the concept, time, for us began,

A dense infinity into a ball,

To reconstruct the start, no human can.

And with the world the Constitution met.

A synergistic process did begin.

Interpretations read into the text

Took some provisions out, put others in.

Though few can understand the universe,

Perhaps law's better served if kept in verse.

Maxwell L. Stearns, Poetic Law: A Statement on Intent, 48 Vand. L. Rev. 195, 199 (1995). (Full text, including endnotes 50-53 and 101-02, citing to Hawking, available here.)

Stephen Hawking was skeptical about philosophy, about religion, and even about the ultimate fate of mankind. He was, by some accounts, a difficult man. Geniuses often are. He was also a genuine inspiration, someone who demonstrated that physical limitations are not limitations on something so infinite, like Pi, as the capacity of the human mind.

Postscript: Since the original posting, I learned that today, Pi Day, also coincides with Albert Einstein's birthday, March 14, 1879 (Einstein died on April 18, 1955), and that Stephen Hawking's birthday, January 8, 1942, coincides with the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, January 8, 1642! See here.

I welcome your comments.

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