‘I WILL pass this on for you but I wouldn’t be very optimistic about a reply, sadly.”

The comms lady from Caius College, Cambridge, had been nothing but polite over the last few years. As a curator, I’d been hustling to get the famous professor on one of my platforms. But the above message, received this last January, stopped me in my tracks.

I mailed back: “Reading between the lines, I think I get the situation... sad indeed. But who knows, for a last hurrah?” She replied: “Your thoughts are correct. I’ve passed the request on.”

It’s not the only communication I’ve had from Stephen Hawking’s office over the years. In the early 2000s I received an excitable letter from a Hue and Cry fan who claimed to be Hawking’s personal assistant at his college (I checked it out, and she was).

She was particularly cheeky about “the great genius’s endless demands”, but otherwise displayed a bubbliness that indicated she didn’t work in a deferential office, meekly servicing the great and infirm master.

Small tales – but I add them to the pile of anecdotes and reports that focus on the indomitable humanity (and all-too-human at that) of the late Professor Stephen Hawking, whose death was confirmed by his family this Wednesday.

His icon-status was inescapable. His scientific mind roamed the universe, indeed to its very physical limits, in the most faltering and fragile of bodies (crushed by Lou Gehrig’s disease). This progressively shut down his ability to communicate. Yet aided by advanced technologies, a flicker of his eyelid could formulate theses and shape diagrams about the fundamental forces of the cosmos.

Hawking was both a shining image of pure intellect and an entangled, bristling cyborg from our future. If the tech moguls have their way, we’ll all be silently communicating brain-to-brain in a few years. Perhaps this was one reason for pop culture’s endless fascination with him (which Hawking thoroughly embraced).

There is some indication that Hawking wanted to maintain this “man as machine” mystique. When an assistant casually upgraded his voice production software to something more naturalistic, Hawking insisted that they reverted back to the metallic, monotone, Americanised rasp: “I want my own voice back.”

If so, Hawking certainly hawked his singularity around. We’ve seen him playing poker with Data from Star Trek Generation; pointing out flaws in Sheldon’s work in The Big Bang Theory; drinking beer with Homer Simpson; being wheeled around by David Walliams in Little Britain; recording the “Galaxy Song” for the Monty Python Live shows. And he did his fair share of advertising spots: BT, Specsavers, Intel, Jaguar, even GoCompare.

The reasons for his hustling are obvious. Since the 80s, Hawking had required an extensive and ever-present team – involving carers, academic assistants, a tech staff and budget, a full back office. And this to enable his basic activity, let alone his researches and public events.

He was even pretty clear about the commercial reasons for writing A Brief History of Time, as a way to resource his family set-up (hopefully okay, 25 million books later). Hawking’s first words on meeting his editor, Peter Guzzardi, were: “Do you have the book contract?” Which he proceeded to read, says Guzzardi, “at breathtaking speed”.

Again, the humanity here is all too tangible. He was the physicist who attempted a “grand unified theory of everything”, an explanation which linked the forces within atoms to the movements of stars and galaxies, yet he had to grapple daily with the most banal of agendas – that is, keeping his own complex and intricate show on the road.

And what of Hawking’s physics itself? What will its legacy be? Those of us who only peer at science through the scratchy perspex screen of its popular media – New Scientist, Horizon documentaries, “smart thinking” volumes from Waterstones (including Hawking’s) – can hardly comment.

Yet we have to try, to honour Hawking’s own commitment to “the popularisation of science”, as his friend the mathematician Roger Penrose wrote in an obituary.

One angle on this comes from explanations as to why Hawking hadn’t yet received a Nobel Prize for Physics. What this indicates is that Hawking was primarily a theoretical physicist, whose various predictions about black holes will take extraordinary amounts of money and technology to prove. And physics Nobels are generally only given for empirically-verified theories.

There is even a sharp dispute on record, between Hawking and Edinburgh University’s Peter Higgs. Hawking laid down a bet in the early 2000s that the “Higgs-Boson” sub-atomic particle – the element that gives weight to everything in the universe – would not be found by the colliders of the time.

Hawking won the early bet, provoking Higgs to publicly complain that “Hawking’s celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have”. But Hawking lost it again in 2012 when the particle was eventually found at CERN – he immediately and graciously suggested that Higgs fully deserved his Nobel Prize.

The great beauty of science is that getting things wrong, and demonstrably so, is entirely the point of it. This may be a personally bruising process, but it’s an objectively testable one. Each disproved hypothesis clears the way for a better understanding of reality.

Yet my own other angle on Hawking’s physics comes from whether his search for a single physical “theory of everything” was mistaken. I take this from the recent collaboration between the physicist Lee Smolin and the philosopher Roberto Unger, titled The Singular Universe and The Reality of Time. Both of them are outraged by the concept that we are surrounded by “multiple universes” (which Hawking believed in).

The existence of these universes is the only way, said Hawking and others, to explain how strangely and ambiguously matter behaves at the quantum and sub-atomic level. But it’s only an explanation if you’re looking for an eternal, mathematical law – an equation “that fits on a t-shirt”, as some have put it.

Smolin and Unger claim this has led physics into a fantasyland (these universes’ existence literally cannot be verified). “Fundamental physics and cosmology have to transform themselves from a search for timeless laws and symmetries,” concludes Smolin, “to the investigation of hypotheses about how laws evolve”.

This means studies that look to the founding moment of our universe, the Big Bang and after, and try to see how the laws of physics evolved and changed in those initial moments (rather than just springing universally and permanently into being). Laws of physics which, conceivably, could change again.

Why should such cosmic speculations matter to the rest of us, blinking slowly at our workscreens? Unger suggests that a physics seeking a theory of everything places a giant mistaken metaphor at the heart of our culture.

This is the belief that underlying laws ultimately sit behind the messiness of human history, and that we could plan and direct our progress – if only we uncovered them. (The arrogance of free-market fundamentalists over the last 40 years comes to mind – never mind Marxist ones).

However, if we believe that options are really open to us, that history can be forged, then alternative (and possibly better) futures are possible – because they are thinkable. These alternatives will be forged, writes Unger, by “a human imagination that always escapes mathematical formulae”.

Now, nobody’s theory is perfect. Hawking might indeed have dreamt of universal laws of physics. But in his advocacy to protect the NHS, his anxiety about the social costs of coming automation and AIs, his support for feminism and progressive politics in general, the professor couldn’t have been more “historically” engaged.

I would have loved to have seen a sparky conversation between these three. It’s not to be. But in an otherwise grim and pinched moment in our public culture, it’s been refreshing to think of this extraordinary life, personal and intellectual, daringly conducted against all the odds.

We are all a brief history in time. And glory be that Hawking made the very most of his.