In the mid 1970s, I grabbed a book of short stories from one of my favourite hard science fiction (SF) authors at the time, the multiple award-winning Larry Niven, from the neighbourhood second-hand bookstore.
I think the anthology was titled A Hole In Space, first published in 1974. It ended with an essay by Niven, in which he described a talk by a British physicist whom he described, if I remember correctly, as “a skinny kid in a wheelchair”.
It was not at all derogatory, because Niven went on to describe how his mind was blown away by this physicist, who despite suffering from a debilitating disease, had turned the world of science upside down, and had given SF writers like him new vistas to explore.
That “skinny kid in a wheelchair” was none other than Stephen Hawking, of course. The talk was one of a series he had been giving on papers he had written based on the ideas of mathematical physicist Roger Penrose.
Hawking’s astounding intellect was housed in a deteriorating body, but he showed that he would not be shackled by mere physical constraints, in the process not only redefining our understanding of the universe, but also our understanding of disability.
Hawking, who was to the latter part of the 20th century (and beyond) what Albert Einstein was to the first half, passed away in the wee hours of March 14, at the age of 76.
Tremendous tributes have poured in for the cosmologist and author of A Brief History Of Time, which discussed space, time, the Big Bang, the future and even the possible existence of a divine being. After being first published in 1988, it stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for 237 weeks.
Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.”
Physicist and writer Brian Greene wrote, “With grace, wit and courage, his genius took us all to the very edge of space and time”, while former US President Barack Obama had the short but impactful tweet: “Have fun out there among the stars”.
Hawking had one advantage over Einstein, of course. He lived in a media-saturated era. Not only has he been interviewed numerous times on various media – TV, radio, print and online – he or his “voice” has actually starred in numerous TV shows, including The Simpsons.
Learning that he was a Star Trek fan, actor and director Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr Spock in both the original series and eight movies in the franchise, got Hawking to portray a holographic simulation of himself in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, where he played poker with holographic sims of Einstein and Isaac Newton.
And of course, he was the idol of fictional physicist Dr Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) in the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in which he made a cameo in the fifth season.
“In loving memory of Stephen Hawking. It was an honor to have him on The #BigBangTheory. Thank you for inspiring us and the world,” the cast tweeted on the news of his death.
Yeah, Einstein may have been an icon and a famous scientist, but Hawking was all that, and a celebrity scientist to boot.
Which may not have been a bad thing, actually. Hawking wrote about “big science”, which can be very hard to understand if you don’t have the fundamentals down pat.
But thanks to all these interviews and appearances, even people who have never read his books learned something, if only via a media osmosis of some sort.
It also helped that he was charming, had a biting wit and an endearing, self-deprecating humour. He could apply his vast intellect to a variety of subjects, and had an opinion on just about anything, only avoiding politics (though he did make some comments about US President Donald Trump recently).
And it also helped that he was a bit of a, ahem, player. As can be seen with his on-and-off relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde, and later, his 11-year marriage to his one-time nurse Elaine Mason.
In an interview with New Scientist magazine on the occasion of his 70th birthday, when asked what he thought about most during the day, he replied, “Women. They are a complete mystery”.
And yes, it also helped that despite all his accomplishments and accolades, there is the tragic twist in his tale.
He was already a promising physicist when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 21, and his doctors told him when he was 22 that he had only a few months to live.
He survived, and persevered, even as his condition worsened over time, forcing him to speak through a voice synthesiser and communicate by moving his eyebrows.
In fact, there are some people who have complained that being an example of the human spirit triumphing over tragedy, Hawking should have been a more vocal champion of the rights and plight of the disabled.
I can see their point, but ultimately disagree.
Sometimes, the best way to champion these issues is not by going up on a soapbox, but to just continue doing what you’re meant to do, and be a shining example and inspiration to the rest of us.
And that, that “skinny kid in a wheelchair”, certainly was.