Posted by Ayleen Barbel Fattal
When Ada Monserrat walked into the office of Stephen Hawking, her excitement could only be matched by her inquisitiveness.
The FIU math instructor had spent several years trying to arrange a meeting with the physicist who has largely defined the science of the origin and development of the universe. Hawking, known for his brilliance but plagued by health issues that have rendered his body virtually unusable, has captivated people across the world for decades. So much so, that a film chronicling the internationally acclaimed physicist’s life will be released in theaters Nov. 7. But seeing a film and sharing a conversation are two very different things.
For Monserrat, who has been teaching at FIU since 2003, the desire to speak academic-to-academic drove her to read most of Hawking’s books in preparation for a meeting that might never happen. All the while she was persistent in making contacts and reaching out to anyone and everyone that might help arrange the meeting. Her persistence ultimately led her to the United Kingdom .
In August, Monserrat headed to the University of Cambridge with a tentative meeting on the books; it was not guaranteed without Hawking’s office confirming. That call finally came — at 7 p.m. the night before the scheduled rendezvous. She did not sleep much that night.
“When I arrived at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, my heart was pounding. I was going to meet one of the smartest men on the planet. No pressure,” Monserrat said. “ I walked into Hawking’s office and was introduced to him with an assisted handshake by his personal assistant. I sat next to him and he said ‘hello.’ I was in awe and appreciating every second of our time together.”
Monserrat and Hawking discussed mathematics, space and his personal philosophies. She introduced him to FIU and the university’s efforts in math education with the Mastery Math Lab. She also discussed The Mars One Project and FIU student Patrick Ford’s participation in the project. Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), speaks with the assistance of a computer program. While the cadence of conversation flows differently, Monserrat said her time with Hawking was insightful and life-changing.
“Hawking believes one should focus on the things that you can do rather than regret the ones you can’t,” she said. “He’s an amazing man whose impact on the world will forever benefit mankind. This is a day I will never forget.”
The unique adventure isn’t the first for Monserrat and won’t be her last. Three times a year — during the breaks between every semester — she embarks on a journey for discovery, understanding and introspection. While in the United Kingdom, she also seized the opportunity to have an encounter with Sir Isaac Newton. The English physicist and mathematician, who died in the 18th century, left behind a body of work that, among other things, helped define the Scientific Revolution of the time.
Monserrat was able to arrange a private viewing of Newton’s personal copy of his book “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” the book largely credited with discovering calculus. For an hour uninterrupted at Trinity College, she was able to study the pages with Newton’s own handwritten notes and editing marks.
Previous trips have taken Monserrat on visits to Madame Marie Curie’s home and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. On more than one occasion, she has toured the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family hid for nearly two years in the Nazi Germany era. She has spent time at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and Schindler’s Factory in Poland. And she has stood on the beaches of Normandy, site of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France during World War II.
She usually travels alone, allowing herself to indulge in the significance of whatever moment in time or world achievement she is visiting at the time. Her only criteria for the destination is that it be impactful with a sense of goodness.
As for Hawking, Monserrat says that moment will be tough to top.
“My journey begins with a fascination toward individuals who persevere in the midst of adversity, have a drive for ambition and are determined to succeed,” she said. “I am committed to sharing my experiences to broaden the horizons of an evolving generation. I hope my experiences can convince our students to never stop believing in themselves. At one point, meeting and sharing ideas with one of the most brilliant minds of all time was only a distant thought. But with a determined mindset, wishful thinking became my reality.”
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