Stephen Hawking, Who Died This Morning at 76, Broadened Interest in the Cosmos
David Royse | LedeTree
Hawking’s genius was, for non-physicists, that he tried to bring the rest of us into his bigger understanding of the universe.
Most scientists, even the most celebrated in their fields, work in total obscurity as far as the wider world is concerned. Think about every year when the Nobel prizes are awarded, and the media crow about some “stunning breakthrough” for which someone is being awarded the prize. You and I have often never, ever heard of the person, or their work.
Not so, for Hawking. Hawking seemed to understand that there was some value in trying to expose the wider world to some of the ideas of theoretical cosmology and physics. Until recently, he and Carl Sagin were the only two thinkers at that level who seemed to care about that idea. (It’s now, I think thanks in part to Hawking, becoming a little more common: think of a guy like Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
Hawking wrote a book that attempted to popularly explain some of the mysteries of the cosmos, A Brief History of Time, which sold more than 10 million copies. Recognizing later that even that was a little dense and not accessible enough to a general audience, he wrote an easier to understand version, A Briefer History of Time, which was aimed entirely at non-scientists.
But he also understood that to draw attention and interest toward the big questions of life and the universe, he had to get public attention – and he embraced the public culture, even in its seemingly “less intellectual” forms.
Hawking once noted that, given the public’s general lack of interest in physics, he was almost as well known as a character on The Simpsons as a scientist. The animated version of Hawking was in four Simpsons episodes, including one in which he went to Springfield to tell people that their idea for a Utopia was more of a Fruitopia. He allowed his likeness to be used in other animated shows, like Futurama, and appeared on TV sitcoms, gave speeches, despite his difficulty communicating, and welcomed media attention.
Hawking said later he did the Simpsons because it was funny, and because “the Simpsons is the best thing on American television.”
And he cooperated with Hollywood filmmakers when they made the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything, about Hawking and his wife Jane, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and for which Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor award for playing Hawking.
“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said in The New York Times’ Hawking obituary this morning. That was the lead quote.
That was, I think for most of us, the genius of Hawking.
In his brief history in time, he took his mind to the outer reaches of human understanding of the cosmos. But unlike many, if not most, of his colleagues, he tried to take us along with him.
Featured Photo: Wikimedia Commons