Wednesday, March 14, 2018

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking

We have lost one of the greats of our time.

It's not so much that Stephen Hawking was a great theoretical theorist - with no less than 9 theorems, formulae, effects, etc, named for him either alone or with a collaborator. Because he was. He advanced our understanding of black holes, of gravity, of the origins of the universe. He was also wrong a number of times (including about the Higgs boson). He enjoyed betting on scientific discoveries, and understood that a scientist needs to be wrong.

But his arguably greater contribution was his ability to explain his ideas, the frontiers of his great mind, in terms that ordinary people could understand. With his daughter, Lucy, he wrote a series of books on theoretical physics for children, but his greatest literary achievement was A Brief History of Time. One ongoing result of this is the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication - which is given to individuals or organizations who help build awareness of science. (It hasn't been given to a science fiction writer yet, but as it started in 2016 there is plenty of time).

And...he did much of this work while seriously, profoundly disabled. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1963, at the age of 21 - and given a life expectancy of two years. He slowly lost the ability to walk, to move, to speak - and had to give up teaching as a result, but he still managed to give lectures using his now famous speech synthesiser (which gave him an American accent). He became a reluctant disability advocate - reluctant because he always tried to be a "person with a disability" - but yet he became a symbol of just what a disabled person could achieve.

He was an icon of science and although his physical decline meant he had not done major work in some time, his passing diminishes all of us.