In close collaboration with the Estate of Stephen Hawking and his family, England’s Bremont watches recently unveiled a new set of limited-edition “Bremont Hawking” watches that includes three men’s models, as well as a women’s piece. The watches are a direct homage to the life, work, and personality of the esteemed astrophysicist who passed away in 2018. Bremont has a history of memorializing “British treasures” in wristwatch form — and the collaboration with the Stephen Hawking Foundation is the latest in an interesting legacy of handsome and emotionally charged timepieces.
My personal interest in Stephen Hawking and his work made my recent conversation with Tim Hawking (son of Stephen Hawking) all the more interesting. I wanted to understand the genesis of the Bremont Hawking watches as well as to imagine the type of watch guy Mr. Hawking might have been. He certainly had his fair share of instances when wearing a nice watch would have been appreciated by his many adoring audiences.
Stephen Hawking entered my life in middle school when I first discovered a copy of 1988’s A Brief History Of Time at a local bookstore. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but as I matured into adulthood, I was ready again to delve deeper into the questions (and answers) presented by the fascinating arena of astrophysics and issues related to understanding the very nature of existence itself.
More recently, I re-read the book along with at least a dozen others about physics and the nature of matter itself. Just in the last 20 years or so since I first discovered Mr. Hawking’s work, the field of astrophysics has made startling discoveries that have helped prove the theories of Hawking and some of his contemporaries. Notably, for Hawking, many of his theories about black holes have been proven by later scientists. Speaking of black holes, the spiral pattern on the face of the Bremont Hawking watch is meant to evoke just that. Other details on the watch (notably on the back) are all about celebrating Hawking’s favorite themes and some of the achievements he is best known for — such as A Brief History Of Time.
Pieces of Stephen Hawking’s desk were used in small sections on the rear of the watch — and this news caused some concern among watch lovers since it seemed as though Mr. Hawking’s famous desk was destroyed for the watch series. This is one of the important points that Tim Hawking cleared up — the desk is quite alright and being dutifully cared for. It turns out that the desk (which was given to the Hawking family before Stephen’s birth) was actually quite old and in need of repair at this point. Wood from inside a drawer was taken for the watches, and thus no visible part of the desk was sacrificed for the watches.
The concept of time was among the most important things in Stephen Hawking’s life, both academically and personally. Much of this was addressed in the 2014 major motion picture The Theory Of Everything, which was about Hawking’s life (played by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for the role as best actor). Given Hawking’s motor neuron disease, he ended up with far more time for idle contemplation than the average person (or physicist, for that matter). Time, for Hawking, was manifested in a way that few other people can comprehend, and yet he happened to have a good sense of humor about it.
An excellent example is a story his son shared with me about an actual party that Stephen Hawking threw. He called it the time traveler’s party, and it went something like this: The party was planned decorated, catered, and hosted by the man of the evening, Stephen Hawking. Only no guests were invited beforehand. Instead, Hawking decided to send out invitations a few days after the party had actually ended. So what was the point?
The idea of the part was to create an instance that potential time travelers could go back in time to experience and have fun both with Mr. Hawking himself and (ideally) other time travelers. This is more or less how Hawking’s sense of humor manifested itself, and you need to unravel several layers of logic to see the point (and humor). What makes this exercise in time travel optimism so entertaining is that Stephen Hawking himself (along with other physicists) had already deemed that time travel (in reverse, i.e. going back in time) violated the rules of physics. The entire “time travelers party” was thus done in jest, as an elaborate joke and it must have been overwhelmingly funny for Stephen to inform people about it.
Part of this sense of humor is captured in a feature of the watch on the dial — the retrograde seconds hand. In a sense, it represents “going back in time,” as the seconds hand jumps back to the original starting position when it ends its path. While the Bremont Hawking watch has a certain timeless conservatism to it, it also features a number of small calls out to Hawking itself — details wearers can discover and appreciate as time goes on.
Tim Hawking says the point of the Hawking watches is part of a larger effort to preserve and express the lasting legacy of Stephen Hawking. The Estate has the right to license the famed father’s name, but according to Tim, “less is more” when it comes to when and how the Hawking name is used for products or marketing use. Tim himself helps manage his late father’s estate and legacy. His philosophy with marketing (learned through his professional career experience), which he has now applied to his father’s estate is “brand expression, not brand extension.” Prior to his current position at the Stephen Hawking Foundation, he worked at LEGO for around 10 years, and we nerded out about a LEGO lunar monorail set we both had as kids in the late 1980s. It makes sense that the son of a physicist would be interested in building blocks. Tim Hawking is also a watch guy who already had a small but notable collection prior to working with Bremont. Now he has a timepiece to remind him of his dad.
Tim and the Hawking family decided to work with Bremont for more than mere superficial reasons. Nick and Giles English (founders of Bremont) studied in the city of Cambridge where Stephen Hawking lived (near Cambridge University where he worked) and saw him around town during their formative years as students. Nick and Giles’s father even went to the same high school as Stephen Hawking, only separated by a few years. Tim was especially impressed by the product quality and design ethos implemented by Bremont and its strong commitment to telling stories about bravery and courage. Stephen Hawking’s navigation through his own personal struggles has made him among the bravest minds of our recent times.
Hawking naturally felt compelled to fight for the rights of the underrepresented and those with disabilities. He championed equal rights for women (who traditionally have had an uphill battle in physics or any of the “STEM” study areas) early on. He was also a strong advocate for environmental protection given his ability to imagine the devastating cost of climate change on our society. What makes the mind of a physicist different from that of many other people is not only their ability to grasp overarching, fundamental concepts and laws that govern our existence but also to carefully consider how events in motion will play out over time. Society today can probably learn a lot about planning and insight, based on how physicists think.
Speaking of time and physics, one of the most ironic elements of the discipline is that the mathematical calculation of physics does not involve time as a variable. In fact, according to physics, time as we know it (then, now, and the future) is a human construct. That notion is vividly difficult for most people to wrap their minds around — especially because the human brain is designed to understand the world around us a chronology of events. Not so in the world of how physics plays out. What we do have is the human ability to measure the elapsing of time, which is actually one of our greatest achievements. Thus, when Stephen Hawking described “A Brief History Of Time,” he is really referring to time as we think of it as humans. The book is really a summary of the creation of the universe until now — because time, as we understand it in human terms, “began” with the “big bang’s” creation of the universe. If this notion (understandably) befuddles you, allow me to recommend The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli in addition to Hawking’s writing on the topic.
The Bremont Hawking watches are another horological testament to human achievement more so than human discovery. Time, as we know, was invented by us, and people like Stephen Hawking worked to reconcile our personal perception of time with the universe that we live in. Hawking left an amazing legacy but also many questions. Answering those questions will take time, and when they are found, it will further strengthen the incredible contribution Mr. Hawking has made not only to our scientific community but also to society as a whole, which he cordially invited into his own world.
When I asked Tim what was one of the enduring questions Stephen Hawking had during his lifetime, he said it had to do with “imaginary time.” The notion of “imaginary time” proved quite complex even for this master thinker, and he discussed it at length in his later book, The Universe In A Nutshell.