LONDON – Friends, family and colleagues of British scientist Stephen Hawking will gather Saturday to pay their respects at his private funeral in Cambridge, where he spent most of his extraordinary life.
Hawking, who died on March 14 at the age of 76, was famously an atheist but his children Lucy, Robert and Tim have chosen the town’s university church, St Mary the Great, to say their farewell.
“Our father’s life and work meant many things to many people, both religious and non-religious. So, the service will be both inclusive and traditional, reflecting the breadth and diversity of his life,” they have said.
Tributes poured in from around the world upon Hawking’s death, from Queen Elizabeth II to NASA, reflecting his huge impact as a physicist and an inspiration, in his refusal to give up in the face of physical disability.
But the service at St Mary church a short distance from Gonville and Caius College where Hawking worked for more than 50 years will only be open to those who knew him, followed by a private reception at Trinity College.
A wider audience will attend a thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey in London on June 15, where Hawking’s remains will be buried near the grave of another legendary scientist, Isaac Newton.
Ahead of the funeral, Gonville and Caius College released new black and white photographs of Hawking taken in 1961 at a summer school for young astrophysicists at a castle in Sussex, southern England, when he was 19.
They showed him playing croquet and in a sailing dinghy, two years before he began experiencing the first symptoms of the motor neurone disease that would later leave him almost completely paralysed.
Fellow students contacted by the college recalled his left-wing views and his mischievous sense of humour, with one describing how he replaced the Royal Navy flag on the castle flagpole with the Communist hammer and sickle.
Hawking defied predictions that he would only live for a few years, although his rare condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) gradually robbed him of mobility.
He was confined to a wheelchair, almost completely paralysed and unable to speak except through his trademark voice synthesiser.
But the illness did nothing to dull his mind, and Hawking became one of the world’s best-known and most inspiring scientists, known for his brilliance and his wit.
His work focused on bringing together relativity the nature of space and time and quantum theory how the smallest particles behave to explain the creation of the Universe and how it is governed.
But he was also a global star his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” was an unlikely worldwide bestseller, and he appeared as himself in TV shows from “The Simpsons” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
Born on January 8, 1942 300 years to the day after the death of the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei Hawking died in his home in Cambridge on the 139th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein.
After taking his undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, he moved to Cambridge for his doctorate and stayed there for the rest of his career.
Hawking’s family has asked six college porters, many of whom provided support for Hawking when he visited for dinners and other events, to carry his coffin. – AFP