Arts and Entertainment

Stephen Hawking: The OG Scholar

Stephen Hawking is smarter than you’ll ever be.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Daniel Tam

On renowned physicist Stephen Hawking’s tombstone is the equation for “Hawking Radiation,” his 1974 theory that black holes aren’t completely black, but rather emit radiation that slowly causes them to “evaporate” with the force of a million nuclear bombs. Nothing could be more fitting for the man who overcame physical disabilities to become one of the most recognized faces of science.

From earning various prestigious awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009) and the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2012), to his cameos on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Big Bang Theory,” Hawking has certainly left behind a legacy in both science and pop culture. After decades of coming up with the most provocative theories and equations around (all without being able to physically write!), Hawking left Earth to explore the ever-expanding universes for real at the age of 76 on March 14, 2018, which happens to perfectly coincide with the anniversaries of the death of Galileo and the birth of Albert Einstein.

Years before Hawking made it onto “The Simpsons” in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” Hawking was making waves with his revolutionary theories in astrophysics and quantum mechanics as he studied matters of science that would be very hard for most Stuy kids to comprehend. Just as important, however, was Hawking’s struggle to overcome the onset of severe depression. At 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare nervous system disease that weakens muscle function, and his doctors said that he wouldn’t survive to see his 23rd birthday. Hawking became brooding and listless—what was the point if he wasn’t even able to live long enough to get his PhD?

Fortunately, when he realized that his disease was progressing much more slowly than expected, Hawking threw himself wholeheartedly into his work with the drive to accomplish as much as he could to live a fulfilling life. He lived past the two years his doctors gave him and continued to crush the competition, even challenging the work of well-established Cambridge physicist Fred Hoyle in 1964. As told by two of Hawking’s biographers, Michael White and John Gribbin, Hoyle’s student Jayant Narlikar had been doing research on the equations in Hoyle’s paper for his PhD and freely shared Hoyle’s work with Hawking. After months of studying it, Hawking was determined to point out its errors, and promptly (and smugly) did so at a Royal Society lecture in London.

Hawking didn’t stop there—he later developed the concept of “Hawking Radiation,” the Penrose-Hawking Singularity Theorems, the Bekenstein-Hawking Formula, and many more very complicated things related to cosmology and physics. In late 2017, Hawking’s 1966 PhD thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes,” was made Open Access, and with over 60,000 downloads within 24 hours, the paper’s host site crashed. “Hopefully they won’t be disappointed now that they finally have access to it!” Hawking quipped in a statement prior to one of the website’s several crashes.

Among Hawking’s great literary achievements is “A Brief History of Time,” written in non-technical terms to describe the structure, origin, creation, and possible fate of the universe. The first edition sold out in the U.S. within days and stayed on The New York Times best seller list for 147 weeks. Unlike most books dealing with complex science, Hawking’s book was meant to be “the sort of book that would sell in airport bookstores” (Wall Street Journal, 2013) and was a huge hit not only because it didn’t use complex terms that would make readers fall asleep, but also because Hawking’s deft use of humor and analogies easily immersed readers in the world of black holes and string theory.

Besides being so successful as a physicist and author, Hawking was quite the activist. At an event celebrating Hawking’s decades-long fellowship at the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, he noted, “I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education.” As well as addressing the challenges faced by today’s physically disabled academics, Hawking, in his goal to raise awareness of science and its need for funding, joined the numerous British universities lobbying for more funding for the scientific community given the looming threat of an £80 million grant cutback.

In addition, in his 2016 lecture, “Into a Black Hole,” at the Royal Institute in London, Hawking continued to inspire with some deeply-resonating words for those struggling with depression, like he had after being diagnosed with ALS. He said, “The message of this lecture is that black holes aren’t as black as they are painted. They are not eternal prisons…Things can get out of a black hole. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out… It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life may seem, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and life in general.” Take notes, Stuy.

On a lighter note, Hawking could have seriously been a comedian. He often appeared in comedy charity events like “Comic Relief” and “Red Nose Day,” where it isn’t hard to find scenes of him trying to hide a wide grin. Many who met the physicist, including actor Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Hawking in the award-winning film, “The Theory of Everything” (2014), praised him for not only his awe-inspiring intellectual ability, but also his “real force of charisma and humor and incisive wit and a sense of mischief. Even though it's difficult for [Hawking] to communicate, he's absolutely in charge of a room” (BBC News, 2014). And despite its completely inaccurate lyrics about the universe, Hawking found time to star in a version of Monty Python’s “Galaxy Song,” where he runs over fellow physicist Brian Cox before belting out the song’s very catchy words. We also can’t forget that interview with comedian and talk show host John Oliver, in which Hawking was asked, “You’ve stated that you believe there can be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Hawking replied yes, and with the most savage comeback ever, added, “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

From when he jokingly called it a pity that he still hadn’t won a Nobel Prize for “Hawking Radiation,” to when he pushed us to consider the man-made end of the world, our man Stephen was someone to be admired and reckoned with. And as all great minds go, Hawking was never afraid to be outspoken, like when he said that the concept of an afterlife is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” On the day of Hawking’s death, we didn’t lose a man to the dark; rather, he left us to be with all the other geniuses.