Many people far more qualified than I am will have already been explaining and extolling the seminal contribution of Stephen Hawking to physics and astronomy. That contribution fundamentally changed our understanding of the mechanics of black holes, as well as pivotally influencing the ontological debate between quantum mechanics and general relativity.
But Hawking surely transcended the confines of his subject not just to be the most iconic scientist on the planet, but to mean so much more to so many people. Beyond his towering intellect was a passion for sharing with everyone the wonder of science that he himself felt.
Far from the sometimes sneering perception of science popularisation as “dumbing down”, there is an increasing realisation nowadays that it is the hallmark of a truly brilliant scientist, such as Michael Faraday, to explain complex ideas in simple terms free of jargon, understandable to everyone – or to write in a way, as did the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar in his Advice to a Young Scientist, that highlights the thrill of simply asking the right questions rather than thinking you already know all of the answers. As Albert Einstein cautioned, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.
Hawking’s ability to make the most obscure and mind-stretching concepts comprehensible to ordinary mortals was wonderfully evident in A Brief History of Time, A Briefer History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, his own biographical My Brief History and especially in George and the Big Bang, written with his daughter Lucy for children and updated following the actual demonstration of the Higgs-Boson.
Moreover, it wasn’t simply that Hawking could give a clear exposition, but that he did so with great wit and in a way that made you want to read more. As he himself suggested, “I hope that I can inspire in a new generation of children the wonder that the universe holds for me”.
In delivering this goal, Hawking in addition served as a role model to those of us within the scientific community who also endeavour to disseminate the thrill of science to a wider public. By being such a prominent exponent of the democratisation of science, he legitimised the activity for the rest of us against the misplaced concerns of possible trivialisation.
Stephen Hawking: a life in pictures
Remarkable though these achievements would be, they are even more colossal when appreciated against the backdrop of the neurodegenerative disease ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, that Hawking suffered from. Since neurodegeneration is my area of research, the fact that Hawking was a victim of this devastating condition has a particularly poignant and personal significance. If ever, even for one second, I had to question why I got out of bed each morning, thinking of Hawking would strengthen my resolve.
Although many of us neuroscientists are trying every approach we can, the slow, remorseless cycle of nerve-cell death is still unstoppable, and the underlying basic mechanism still unknown. To live each day with this knowledge and yet to let your mind soar to such great heights is surely the most wonderful example of the apotheosis of the human spirit and that for the rest of us, however difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at.
Few of us will be brilliant physicists, witty and exciting communicators, or be tested for so long by such a cruel and crippling disease: but Stephen Hawking will surely be an enduring role model for us all, whoever and whatever we are.
Baroness Greenfield is a scientist specialising in the physiology of the brain