March 14th, Einstein’s birthday, has come to be known Pi Day, the holiday that (for the most part) celebrates mathematics and mathematicians (as well as math-heavy sciences). It was also the day we found out that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had passed away, at the age of 76.
Along with Tyson and Sagan, Hawking was one of the celebrities of the physicist and cosmologist communities, being probably one of the most brilliant minds over to gain recognition in recent history. During his life theorized on the laws by which Blackholes operate, the formation of the expanding Universe and how it might eventually end, the potential existence of Multiverse Theory, and the search for a Theory of Everything that would unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory (our current understandings concerning both still have contradictions that need to be reconciled)
He has had both a form of radiation (emitted by so-called Blackholes) and a form of energy (as a possible definition of mass in a general relativity equation).
Hawking is also notable for writing A Brief History of Time—which became an international bestseller—as well as a couple other books about physics and cosmology, all of which helped him to earn him pop culture notability comparable to that of Albert Einstein.
He recently had a memoir published, an autobiographical work titled My Brief History that looks back over his life as a scientist, a student, a husband, and a father (a slightly dramatized account of his early life can be seen in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything). He and his daughter Lucy also wrote several children’s books about the cosmic adventures and explorations of two kids named George and Annie.
A full list of works written by Hawking can be found on his official website, as well as on Amazon.
Doctor Hawking had a rare early-onset form of slowly progressing form of Motor Neurone Disease known as ALS that manifested during his twenties and slowly rendered him unable to make use of his voluntary muscles. It is was expected to kill him within three years after diagnosis, yet obviously he persisted well into his seventies. Eventually it took away his voluntary motion and ability to speak (at which point he ended up getting his trademark american-accented robotic voice). I won’t say he was trapped, because his mind was still sharp, and with his mind he was free to explore the Universe and its mysteries. If he hadn’t had ALS, it is likely that he could never have become the notable man he was, as his diagnosis lead to him developing a strong sense of purpose (though his first marriage might have lasted longer without the personal strain).
Besides his publications and theoretical work, Hawking was a notable role model and advocated for the disabled, a mantle he accepted sometime around the 90s. To be disabled is to often be marginalized or treated as a burden; through Hawking one can learn that a debilitating condition does not have to prevent one from seeking out and achieving great things. He was a staunch acknowledger of the existence of climate change, and has stated that the changes happening on Earth now are comparable to the developments that lead to Venus becoming the hothouse it is. On a related note, he believed that the future of humanity was dependent on going into space and colonizing other worlds, because our own planet was getting too used and crowded to support us for much longer.
Among his peers and colleges he also was known for being quick witted and always up to wager on potential scientific discoveries (like betting against the identity of Cygnus X-1 as a blackhole; Kip Thorne won).
As a celebrity, his statements and actions occasionally caused controversy. Like a lot of older men, he could be sexist, if not misogynistic. He was also an outspoken atheist, which of course drew ire from the religious crowd. Whereas religious belief sees the world as existing under authority, Hawking saw the world as existing under observable and understandable laws. If something seemed unexplainable, it was because we had yet to discover the laws behind it. As an extension of his atheism, he did not believe in any afterlife either; the human brain is a complex organic computer that just shuts down when the components fail.
He was also the only person to play themselves in a Star Trek series, during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data the android plays poker against (technically a hologram of) him, Isaac Newton (played by an actor), and Albert Einstein (also played by an actor). Other shows in which he appeared as himself include The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. Neat.
Doctor Hawking’s funeral service occurred late last March on the 31st. His cremated remains are to be buried at Westminster Abbey alongside fellow notable Brits Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
While he had his flaws as a person, Stephen Hawking was a brilliant human being who had a significant influence on human society. Many people were inspired by him in some way to get into the sciences, and many of the people who studied under him went on to be notable physicists as well.
While Hawking desired to one day visit outer space (don’t we all?), he is now dead and commercial space flight has still yet to come into existent. There are still quite a few economic and political barriers that would allow us the means to leave the planet, let alone visit others.
While some will deny it to their heart’s content, we are rapidly changing our planet and not for the better. There are ways that we can (and should) repair it, but even then there will still come a time in the future when we may have to look to the stars to sustain our species. I hope I live long enough to see a person set foot on Mars (or at least the moon again), but I would happily settle for widespread environmental sustainment and regrowth. At the moment, this is the only planet we’ve got.
In the mean time, there’s still plenty of hypotheses to test and mysteries to explore.