Professor Stephen Hawking died yesterday, and I for one am very sad. I’m 47 years old and Professor Hawking should have died before I was born, having been diagnosed in 1963 with motor neurone disease, a condition which claims most victims within five years. Yet he survived and thrived for more than half a century, becoming, in my view, my generation’s Einstein.
His former wife has suggested in her book that he wasn’t a good husband and was a narcissist. A number of commentators have also alluded to this, and that’s as maybe, but my post today is to celebrate the scientist who brought theoretical physics into the living room, and that isn’t something that happens every day.
Stephen Hawking took Einstein’s theory of general relativity and extrapolated it to the beginning of time, to specifically predict the Big Bang. And now, from analysis of how the universe is expanding (which is way beyond me), scientists can work backwards and estimate exactly when this was. It was probably a Wednesday. Not only that but he also predicted how the universe would expand and ultimately end at the bottom of a black hole. He took relativity and mixed it with quantum physics – two very different theories – to create a balanced ‘theory of everything’. Getting that heady mixture right would leave even John Torode salivating.
His A Brief History of Time became science for the masses – bringing physics, astronomy and cosmology onto our bookshelves, on the shelves next to David Attenborough and Ranulph Fiennes. It was too much for me when I first read it, but little snippets and off-hand facts blew me away, and my already-piqued interest in the universe was ignited.
But it’s Hawking’s reaction to his disability that is of most interest. In a generation where the cliché was ‘does he take sugar’, where the carer was asked if their disabled companion would prefer one lump or two rather than asking the person themselves, the good professor became a household name. He was the first rock-star scientist, way before Brian Cox, and to hell with whether he was disabled. And he looked like he was loving it. His voice synthesizer from the 80s could have been upgraded and improved, but he kept it, presumably because it was his voice that everyone knew – just like yours or mine. It became one of the most recognisable voices on the planet. From being sampled by Pink Floyd on The Division Bell, to appearing on The Simpsons and Star Trek, he became in icon. Stephen Hawking was famous because of his disability, not in spite of it, the world’s most famous wheelchair user.
In a world where the word genius is bandied around for writing a clever post on Facebook, Stephen Hawking was a proper genius. Before his death, one of his most recent concerns was how AI might ultimately wipe out the human race. And if Prof Hawking is predicting The Terminator, I think we’d better sit up and take notice. The world of physics is a poorer place today without him, but I look forward to watching the next generation of scientists follow in the great man’s footsteps, and seeing what more we can achieve.