- Stephen Hawking died in his home in Cambridge at age 76 on March 14, 2018.
- The physicist pioneered new ways of understanding black holes and the universe.
- His popular-science books — especially “A Brief History of Time” — may persist as some of his greatest achievements.
Stephen Hawking, who’s known for his explorations of time and discovering that black holes can evaporate, died today at age 76 in his home in Cambridge.
I was lucky enough to see him speak in person twice, but I first got acquainted with the British physicist during a long Boy Scout trip to the middle of nowhere, Ohio.
Hawking, of course, wasn’t riding on our body-odor-filled bus. Instead, I saw his image on a paperback copy of his 1988 book, “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes“. In the photo, the bespectacled author sat in a wheelchair in front of a star field.
I don’t recall why a friend handed me the book. But that introduction to Hawking’s writing influenced the arc of my life, and undoubtedly that of millions of other people.
How Hawking helped change me with words
Like many tweens-going-on-teens in the 1990s, I was trying to fit in at school with limited success.
“A Brief History of Time” became a magical escape hatch. In reading it, I could leave behind probing questions about girls I liked, peer pressure to make a clown out of myself (which I excelled at), and chaotic and sometimes cruel social circles.
Instead, I could join Hawking on fantastical adventures to the edges of black holes and inside time-traveling spacecraft; shrink down to the infinitesimal scale of subatomic particles; and journey to the birth and eventual death of the universe. He was like a Time Lord from the show “Doctor Who,” though he scurried about the universe via words instead of a phone booth.
The book — which had sold millions of copies even then — was dense, for sure. But to me it read like a riveting sci-fi tale and murder mystery rolled into one. And it was real. What Hawking wrote represented a digestible guide to the limits of human knowledge.
I had only a crude knowledge of mathematics, so I didn’t understand half of what Hawking wrote, at least at first. Yet his prose was eminently readable. I read the book cover-to-cover, again and again, extracting new understanding each time.
“We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?” Hawking wrote.
His book not only helped answer those questions for my teenage self, but also instilled in me new curiosities, such as “Is there a theory of everything?” and “Will we ever detect evidence of multiple universes?”
More importantly, Hawking revealed to me how science was thought through and performed.
The things that once felt exciting and mysterious to me, like astrology, ghosts, and UFOs, suddenly seemed foolish. Why clamor for evidence of the occult when the greatest source of mystery in our existence — the universe itself — was at our fingertips?
Smitten by the ultimate
I eventually returned the book to my friend in a dog-eared and tattered state. But its wonder stuck with me.
Hawking — whose struggle with the neurological disease ALS left him increasingly unable to move his body — summoned the courage and resolve to turn his condition into a gift. He used it to formulate bold ideas, put them forth with careful and thoughtful writing, and develop an uncanny ability to make the exceedingly complex comprehensible (and at times hilariously entertaining).
His work helped me see the purpose and excitement of learning to do math and science. It’s also why Hawking and “A Brief History of Time” are the first two things I think of when asked why I became a science writer.
The book was my first deep-dive exposure to the technically challenging, murky frontiers of human knowledge. It gave me the desire and the language to chase the ultimate in my career. Hawking’s work is probably why I’m still smitten by absurdly complex topics like gravitational waves, black holes, nuclear physics, and space exploration. And it’s why I spend my workdays striving to understand these frontiers and their profound, surprising relevance. (Have a gold or platinum ring? Thank a pair of colliding neutron stars.)
Hawking was not perfect by any means — no one is — and he had a lot of help in his enterprise. But now more than ever with his passing, I hope others will continue to find the boundless yet grounded curiosity he helped me discover at a young age.
I hope my work will, like Hawking’s did for me, spur readers to look up at the night sky (preferably in the middle of nowhere) and see more than “just” moons and stars. Hopefully they will fund and understand the beauty and interconnectedness of the universe, how little we know about it, and just how much we have yet to learn as a young alien species stuck on a rock that’s drifting through the void.
This story was originally published on March 14, 2018, at 5:49 p.m. ET.
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- The man who helped Stephen Hawking achieve his lifelong dream of experiencing zero gravity remembers what it was like to watch the acclaimed physicist break free of his wheelchair
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