Saying goodbye to Stephen Hawking

FIU mathematics professor Ada Monserrat frequently travels on semester breaks pursuing unique experiences. Previous trips have taken Monserrat on visits to all parts of the world. She has visited CERN in Geneva, home of the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs-Boson particle was discovered. She has explored the history of flight and space exploration at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. She has been to Madame Marie Curie’s home in Poland and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. She has traveled to Jerusalem to meet Anne Frank’s best friend. This year, she explored the ruins of Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, one of the few buildings left standing near ground zero of the 1945 atomic bomb.

But perhaps one of her most memorable journeys was in 2014 when she traveled to the University of Cambridge for a one-on-one meeting with acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking. When Monserrat learned of his passing this year, she was in the Middle East. After having spent a few days in the city of Petra in Jordan’s southwestern desert, Monserrat cut her trip short to travel to Cambridge and pay her respects.

Below is Monserrat’s story about her journey back to Cambridge.

Ada Monserrat signs Stephen Hawking's book of condolences on behalf of FIU.

Ada Monserrat signs Stephen Hawking’s book of condolences on behalf of FIU.

By Ada Monserrat

Herds of sheep roamed aimlessly over the sand covered terrain. Camels and mules could be seen far in the horizon as the Bedouin tribes transported their goods. Carved into pink sandstone cliffs, stands one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra the “Rose City.”  There I was in the middle of the Arabian Desert in the Kingdom of Jordan experiencing what felt like being on another planet.

Petra, Jordan.

Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Wadi Rum, referred to as the “Valley of the Moon,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made famous for its breathtaking views of endless desert and the British Colonel T. E Lawrence better known as Lawrence of Arabia. In the mist of that adventure, I am suddenly startled by hearing the news of Stephen Hawking’s passing. My memory immediately takes me back to a conversation with the brilliant scientist whose influence on me has left an everlasting footprint. At that moment I knew there was no other place I needed to be than at the University of Cambridge to honor his life. I left the desert, found my way back to the city of Amman, gathered my belongings and off I went from one Kingdom to another.

Mathematicians and physicists from around the globe traveled to the United Kingdom that day. Upon my arrival to the stunning grounds of Cambridge, I was greeted and escorted around the campus by the Director of Development from the College of Gonville and Caius, where Hawking was a Fellow for over fifty years. Surrounded by majestic architecture dating back to the early 1200’s, I exchanged words with professors and students reminiscing on the milestones achieved by the great physicist. As I was walking by the chambers, Hawking’s name could be seen written in front of his dorm. Condolences were being sent from all over the world but for those of us who were there, our expressions of sympathy would be embedded into a rectangular fine line paged book that each of us would sign. I entered a quiet room where in front of me was a small table and on top of it, the Book of Condolences dedicate to Stephen Hawking. I opened it and began to write.

Monserrat outside Hawking's dorm room at the University of Cambridge.

Monserrat outside Hawking’s dorm at the University of Cambridge.

“I am saddened by your loss but empowered by your strength, courage and determination. It was an honor to have met you and will never forget the words of wisdom you shared with me. Upon your exit may we reflect and always be mindful that no obstacle is ever too big to overcome.” Signed, Ada Monserrat on behalf of Florida International University.

As I walked away, a news team from Poland was filming the morning news show “Dzien Dobry” on TVN and asked if I would say a few words about what brought me to Cambridge. I introduced myself as Mathematics faculty representing FIU and shared why I had traveled from a distant land to give merit to a man that persevered over adversity throughout most of his life and now his ashes will rest in Westminster Abbey by Isaac Newton — a mathematician who is considered one of the most influential scientists of all time.

Many of us face challenges every day, those trials make us stronger and become a part of who we are today. What we do when that storm comes defines our measurement of success. I asked Hawking during my visit with him several years ago, “What do you want humanity to remember you by?” One of his replies was, “Focus on the things you can do in life rather than regret the ones you can’t.” I am here simply to relay that message and keep his spirit of determination alive.