Professor Hawking’s Fiji connection

WHEN Professor Stephen Hawking is laid to rest in a private funeral at Great St Mary’s, the medieval university church of Cambridge in eastern England, among the mourners was an English lady who had spent much of her adult life in Fiji, before becoming Prof Hawking’s personal assistant.

It was through her that Stephen Hawking learned a great deal about Fiji and expressed a wish to visit these islands some day, unfortunately a wish that was never to be fulfilled.

Born in Singapore to a Scottish father and an English mother, Ju­d­ith Croasdell spent her early chil­dhood in Singapore and Thailand before being sent to a boarding school in the UK at the age of eight.

After a varied career, including working for the Foreign Office in Bahrain, she arrived in Fiji in 1981 for a brief visit with her then husband, the English composer and ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe, who took up an honorary position at USP to travel the Pacific and record and study its traditional music (copies of the resulting tape recordings, notebooks and photographs are housed in the USP library). She came back to settle in Fiji in 1982 with their two children, Alexander and Rebecca, living at Wairua Rd in Tamavua. The children attended Veiuto Primary and Suva Grammar schools and later International School Suva.

She studied Hebrew, Greek and liberation theology at Pacific Theological College and was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree with a thesis on the emergence of Fijian ethnic nationalism, later published in Domodomo, the journal of the Fiji Museum.

She then became active in many fields, including being representative of Trinity College of Music, secretary to the Friends of the Fiji Museum, assistant to the manager of the Bayly Trust, and a pioneer of art therapy for the mentally disadvantaged at St Giles Hospital.

In her capacity as co-ordinator of arts and craft (PEMAC), she also established a diploma program at the then Nasinu Residential College (now part of FNU).

She returned to England in 1992 with her children and an adopted Fijian son who is now in the British Army, and took up a position with the University of Cambridge Examination Syndicate.

At first, things were difficult, especially for the children who were depressed and missed the Fiji way of life and especially the sun. In October 2004 she spotted an advertisement that was to change her life. She applied and within a month was called for an interview.

Recalling the interview, Judith says: “I was so thrilled to have been short-listed I couldn’t believe it — and to be interviewed by the great man himself put me on a high. He just said to me, ‘Tell me about yourself’, and for me, with my peripatetic background, it was a lot to talk about; so I limited it to mentioning how I’d seen Halley’s comet in Fiji, how the Milky Way was absolutely astonishing.

“My love of stars and space grew from living on the beautiful islands.”

She was offered the position of personal assistant to Prof Hawking in the Department of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. There she would remain by Prof Hawking’s side for 10 years, as his gatekeeper and organiser, in which capacity she travelled the world and met countless celebrities, including presidents, astronauts, Nobel Laureates and royalty.

On retirement, she continued to work for him for two years as a consultant. She would often talk to him about her experiences in Fiji, including that fantastically clear view of Halley’s comet in 1986, and he told her he would love to visit here to see the heavens, but time and circumstances never permitted — the nearest they came was when they visited Rapanui (Easter Island) in 2008. She is still very active and living in Girton, near Cambridge.

While it is sad that Prof Hawking’s proposed visit never materialised, the world-famous American astrophysicist Carl Sagan did visit Fiji with his wife in 1986, specifically to see Halley’s comet in a sky free of light pollution.

Perhaps we could take a cue from these two great scientists and consider setting up an observatory in the highlands of Viti Levu — as both a centre for study and research and a place where visitors can relax and enjoy a spectacularly clear view of the heavens and fall in love, like Judith Croasdell, with the cosmos.

* Dr Paul Geraghty is a staff member of USP. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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