The danger with writing anything about Stephen Hawking when you failed physics as spectacularly as I did is that you risk sounding really very stupid indeed. I’ve tried to understand the 4 laws and his most significant theory – that those big black hole things emit radiation – but forget it – there’s no way I can blag it. Stephen Hawking was smarter than me and if I started reading now and did nothing but read for the rest of my days he would still be smarter. He was much more than the science though. He was a phenomenon. Katy Perry has been much lampooned for her tweet saying that Hawking’s death has left ‘a big black hole in my heart’ but actually there’s a kind of truth there. His loss is one of those rare celebrity departures (and he was a celebrity like it or not) where it really feels as if the world is genuinely poorer for his passing.
But you know that already so here – anyway – are 7 times Stephen Hawking was just – well – awesome.
1: A Brief History of Time. First published in 1988 – the joke back then was that it was the second biggest selling book in history after the Bible that nobody had actually read. But it was a science publishing big bang. The first truly popular physics book that people bought because they wanted to and not because a teacher told them they had to. Hawking wrote it for non-specialists and single-handedly invented a new genre. The book sold 10 million copies, was translated into 35 languages and sought to explain cosmology, black holes and light cones to the masses.
2: Motor Neuron Disease. Professor Hawking was the longest known survivor of the condition – which normally claims lives within three years. When he was diagnosed with the illness aged 21 he was given just 2 years – but went on to live another 55 with dignity, humour and defiance. The smartest man on the planet was racked with an almost unbelievable level of infirmity but it didn’t stop him making ground breaking research that will resonate for centuries and demonstrating – defiantly – that being disabled doesn’t stop you accomplishing more than most of us could ever hope to achieve. Hawking once said that the illness was a ‘blessing’ because it meant he didn’t have to teach and waste his time chairing boring committees and he could thus get on with his work.
3: Proving time travel was impossible. In 2009 Stephen Hawking threw a party for ‘time travellers.’ There was champagne, there were balloons and banners and canapes – and a brilliant twist. He didn’t send out any invitations until after the event had happened – thus proving that time travel (at least backwards) didn’t exist.
4: The TV appearances. Hawking had a brilliant sense of humour and loved sending himself up – famously in several episodes of The Simpsons but also in a raft of other popular TV cameos from Red Dwarf to The Big Bang Theory. In a season of Star Trek the Next Generation he appeared playing poker with Einstein and Isaac Newton. No stuffy academic he and the appearances undoubtedly drew people to the science and his theories.
5: Turned down a knighthood. Hawking accepted a CBE and a Companion of Honour but turned down a knighthood from the Queen because he ‘didn’t like titles’ and was angry about the government’s mismanagement of science funding. In so doing he joins the elite ranks of great British people who had no need of a sword at their shoulder.
6: Of God and aliens:
Hawking didn’t believe in God and expressed his atheism eloquently:
“When people ask me if a god created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the big bang, so there is no time for god to make the universe in….. There is no god. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that I am extremely grateful.”
But he had an open mind on aliens warning:
“One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back…..(because) they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
7: Brexit and Trump. There’s an unintentionally funny meme that does the rounds on Facebook and Twitter that ‘explains’ how Conservatives are smarter than liberals – and of course Donald J. Trump would have us believe that he – the greatest man in the universe – is more than just a very smart guy but a ‘stable genius.’ Stephen Hawking never had to tell anyone he was clever – truly clever people never do. The biggest brain of our era was socially liberal, uninterested in plaudits or baubles, contemptuous of Trump and a vocal opponent of Brexit not only because of the disastrous impact it would have on UK science but also because of its global implications:
‘If we fail, then the forces that contributed to Brexit, the envy and isolationism not just in the UK but around the world that spring from not sharing, of cultures driven by a narrow definition of wealth and a failure to divide it more fairly, both within nations and across national borders, will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the long term outlook for our species.’
On man-child Donald he was even more dismissive – describing the US President as “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
But hey – what would this greatest of scientists have known about the brilliant Donald Trump… a very smart guy…. and the global opportunities that Brexit presents – he was an expert after all – and we have had quite enough of those – haven’t we! Rest in space dust Professor – and thank you.