Stephen Hawking: A Remembrance
Stephen Hawking has died. The eminent cosmologist and science popularizer was aged 76 when the world was notified of his death in the early hours of the British morning. In the scientific community, he will be remembered for his research on the Big Bang and black holes. Among the public, he will be remembered for his book A Brief History of Time, public lectures, TV documentaries, and appearances on The Simpsons and Star Trek. His close companions will remember his charm and wonderful spirit, and all will remember his personal struggles, particularly his diagnosis of and time with ALS. The latter is what distinguished him from most scientists and made him an inspiration to many people across the world, including me.
I have sickle-cell anemia. Sickle-cell anemia affects a person’s red blood cells, making them lengthen in the absence of oxygen which then block blood vessels and deprive areas of the body of oxygen. This often leads to terrible pain with the possibility of even worse outcomes. This meant that as a child I couldn’t do much physical activity and be outside as much as I would have liked. This despite my interest in science and the natural world. My heroes were Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and later on David Attenborough: scientists and naturalists who would explore ecosystems, learn about the creatures inhabiting them, and present them to the general public. I wanted to be like them, climbing the canopies of tropical rainforests or swimming in the seas with marine life. I wanted to travel to habitats across the globe and understand how and why nature looked the way it did.
But I couldn’t. Not then; possibly never.
My first clear introduction to Stephen Hawking and his work when I was young, perhaps less than 10 years old. My family and I were watching the documentary adaptation of A Brief History of Time. I don’t remember much except for the unsettling feeling that comes with learning something incredible you can’t comprehend. That and teacups smashing on the floor only to reassemble as time flowed in reverse. From then on, he formed a constant presence in my life. His near ubiquity and fame certainly definitely made it hard to ignore him, intentionally or not. But unlike other science communicators his presence stuck with me because of personal, not scientific, life.
Watching your heroes and knowing you can never be like them is difficult beyond belief. You can see your goals, but they are always out of reach. Having a relatable hero, someone who faces similar struggles but is still successful, is to critical any budding scientist. Stephen Hawking was my relatable hero. Both of us were and are physically disabled. Without functioning bodies, our minds were the only place we could make discoveries. We had to accept the refuge of theory for our scientific careers. Being disabled, we both had and have to rely on the grace and kindness of people around us if we ever wished fulfill our dreams. His presence was always there as an example that I could succeed. Just by being visible, he gave me the confidence, even if subconsciously, to choose science and academia. And now reflecting on his life as I near the end of my own graduate career, I appreciate him even more than I did as a kid and remain extremely grateful to have merely known of him.
Thank you, Dr. Hawking.