Stephen Hawking's impact on science and pop culture

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Mar 14, 2018

In the beginning there was a bang, then light, and after a time, Stephen Hawking.

Hawking was born in Oxford on January 8, 1942. He later went on to attend Oxford University and eventually pursue graduate work in the field of cosmology at Cambridge. Hawking's early life, immortalized in the biopic, The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne, was pockmarked by incredible difficulty. Despite being diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease, and being given a prognosis of only two years, Hawking persevered and went on to live for decades. He became a household name, perhaps the most famous scientist since Einstein, and his theories changed the way we think about black holes and the universe at large.

Perhaps Hawking's largest contribution to our understanding of the cosmos was his discovery that black holes aren't an end for all energies. Hawking published a paper in 1975 that combined quantum theory and relativity to show that photons, neutrinos, and some mass-bearing particles do escape the event horizon. The theorized radiation was named after Hawking.

Sadly, after a lifetime of work, both within the scientific community and in popularizing science to the public, Dr. Hawking died at his home in Cambridge on the morning of March 14, 2018 at the age of 76.

It's difficult to measure the impact Hawking had, not only the scientific community and scientific literacy, but on the world of popular culture. His first book, A Brief History of Time, remains one of the most popular and best-selling science books of all time. According to Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and co-author of Hawking's 2010 book on quantum theory, The Grand Design, Hawking joked that A Brief History of Time "…was probably the least-read, most-bought book ever."

For my part, the illustrated A Brief History of Time (a book loaned to me by a friend, which I never returned — sorry, Josh!) provided the first clear explanation of the relative nature of the speed of light and time dilation. I'll always remember the instant it clicked and I felt, for a moment, like I had seen into the clockwork of existence. What Hawking did with his writings was explain high-level concepts in a way that anyone with a burgeoning interest in the sciences could understand. He gave water and sunlight to seeds and allowed them to bloom.

How many other scientists, writers, and artists found their calling through the rippling effect of Hawking's work? How many were influenced or inspired by seeing, through Hawking's words, into the clockwork of reality? It's impossible to know, but I'd be willing to guess he gave water and light to more than a few.

Hawking was no stranger to the screen himself. He received his first acting credit on Star Trek: The Next Generation in a Season 6 episode titled "Descent," wherein Lieutenant Commander Data plays a game of poker in the holodeck with a group of famous scientists from the past.

It's been said that while being given a tour of the set, when Hawking saw the warp core, he joked, "I'm working on that." Hawking's quick wit and sense of humor, in spite of seemingly insurmountable trials, endeared him to the public and opened hearts and minds to his message.

A cameo on Star Trek was only the beginning of Hawking's acting career. He also did stints on Futurama, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory and played a particularly thrilling game of chess against Paul Rudd. Not to mention a slew of non-acting credits in countless documentaries and scientific programs.

Hawking lost his voice in 1985 after a battle with pneumonia that required a tracheotomy. Afterward, several methods were tried at allowing him to communicate, and he eventually settled on the now-famous digital voice. The software that allowed Hawking to communicate, by sensing minute movements of a cheek muscle using an infrared sensor, had been upgraded over the years, but Hawking always insisted his voice not be changed. That voice, despite its generic nature, became a calling card, one that was instantly recognizable. He's even through the magic of other technologies been featured in a few songs from Pink Floyd to Symphony of Science.

And while Hawking has returned to the stars from whence he came, like the black hole energy that is his namesake, his influence will radiate throughout the scientific community, popular culture, and all of humanity for a long time to come. We were lucky to have him.