On March 14, 2018, the great Stephen Hawking passed away. As a scientist, evangelist, and public figure, Hawking has been one of the preeminent voices in science over the past 50 years based on his primary research, his best-selling writing including “A Brief History in Time,” and his media appearances in pop culture bastions such as the Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory.
He is the most inspirational and memorable scientist of our generation. But what is it that made him great and what can we take away from his life that can improve what we do? As an IT researcher, my mission is far less ambitious than Hawking’s. But even so, there are a few lessons I like to think I learned from him
First, let’s just get this out of the way: we’re not all going to just become ground-breaking astrophysicists. Hawking was a top-tier scientist and theorist. But was he the best scientist? He never won the Nobel Prize in his roughly 50 years of scientific output. Although he held one of the most prestigious chairs in academia, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, it is arguable to say if he was on par with an Isaac Newton or a Paul Dirac. During his life, there were some murmurs that Hawking got an outsized amount of attention compared to the quality and quantity of scientific work that he produced. Frankly, this is probably true. But what these critics didn’t understand is that
fame does not just come from publishing research papers or making great discoveries. It is also vital to show the rest of the world why these discoveries matter and to effectively describe how our concept of the universe changes as a result.
So, even if he was not technically Newton or Einstein, Hawking was the best communicator of science in our era, rivaled only by the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, who are strong presenters but lack Hawking’s academic publishing credentials. So, as an overall presence, Hawking towered over his peers. What was it that made Hawking so special and inspirational?
First, Hawking had a fundamental focus in his life: to understand how the universe works. Purpose provides meaning and shapes life paths. Not all of us can understand and explore the fundamental unification of the universe, but we can choose and focus on our life’s purpose. For instance, it makes my life easier to know that I’m focused on helping people use the next generation of B2B tech. It’s far less ambitious than Sir Hawking’s work, but we all do what we can.
Find your focus and let that shape what you do.
Second, Hawking was able to take advantage of his disadvantages. The most obvious challenge Hawking faced was his ALS, which originally looked like an early death sentence. Because he faced death early and had an uncertain lifespan, Hawking faced the immediate need of having to be productive and to make substantive progress on his work. Hawking let a disability that could have destroyed his life instead end up being a driver for being productive despite the significant motor and communications challenges that he faced. Fittingly, because of cutting-edge healthcare and science, we got an extra 50 years of Hawking’s genius that would not have been possible in past generations.
Third, Hawking was an amazing romanticizer of science. In this regard, Hawking shared a talent with Richard Feynman in being able to both simplify and analogize his work to an extent that the common layperson could understand extremely complex concepts. One of my favorite examples is how Hawking spoke about Hawking Radiation in terms of hope. “If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.”
Hawking also understood the importance of making science entertaining, as he did in his public speaking, public wagers, and TV cameos. Hawking wasn’t above commercializing his work and using the media to get some attention for otherwise-dry topics such as the existence of the Higgs boson or the theoretical ability of matter to escape a black hole. And, of course, Hawking’s mega-best seller, “A Brief History of Time” was both easy to read and well-titled by his editor. Hawking knew he could not just stay in the ivory tower and made a real effort to be an evangelist and promoter of science.
In short, Hawking understood that to make our collective understanding of the universe better, it was not sufficient to have the best ideas. Hawking, by and large, had the best ideas as the premier cosmologist of our era and worked with other powerhouse scientists through his illustrious career. His bona fides in science are undeniable.
I’m going to miss having Stephen Hawking around. Even as someone who admittedly struggles to understand even the most basic theoretical scientific foundations of Hawking’s work, I greatly admired his ability to simplify his work to my two-semesters-of-undergrad-physics level of scientific understanding and I marvelled at his productivity even in his 70s. His most recent theory on event horizon radiation published in 2016 may end up being the most substantial of his work. And I admire his commitment to pursuing greatness for so many decades in his work.
In Hawking’s research on black holes, he theorized that when something entered a black hole, there would be a “hair” or expulsion of information on the edge of the black hole so that whatever entered was not truly lost. Although we have lost Hawking forever, my hope is that we have similarly all gained a bit of Hawking for ourselves that we can apply it to our own lives. I know I will think of him as I continue in my mission in life. I hope you do as well.