Goodbye, Professor Hawking

By Bill Andrews | March 14, 2018 11:59 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Well, if you’re on the internet today, you’ve probably already heard: Stephen Hawking died this morning at the age of 76. Almost every single news and science-based website (are there any others?) have stories on the physicist and his amazing life and achievements — chief among them, perhaps, being famous enough to deserve all those headlines. He was almost certainly the world’s most recognizable living scientist, and one of the most famous of all time.

If people know him for anything specific, rather than just being a generically smart guy (this generation’s Albert Einstein), it’s likely for two things. The first — and this is how I first became aware and in awe of the man — is his 1988 book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. The bestseller took readers through a fun tour of cosmology and physics, and it was the first glimpse for many into that daunting world.

Hawking’s genius was not just with equations and abstract theorizing that gave him his scientific bona fides, it was also in being able to explain these concepts to the interested layman in clear, engaging prose. When I first read it in high school, the science and the lucidity of its explanations impressed me deeply — it’s somewhat humbling to think the work I do now, as a science journalist, is in the same vein.

The second thing is Hawking’s diagnosis of ALS in 1963. Given just a few years to live, he ended up thriving for decades, outliving many of his doctors. While the degenerative disease took its toll on the scientist’s body, his brilliant mind remained sharpened till the very end. Just as you didn’t have to be fluent in mathematics to appreciate his popular writings, it didn’t take a PhD to be inspired by the man’s determination to live life to the fullest on his own terms, despite the disease’s effects. If anything, his wheelchair and computerized voice became a kind of signature, an emblem of a man who enjoyed engaging with pop culture as much as the academy.

He had guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Simpsons

The Big Bang Theory

And he made many more such appearances.

Hawking was increasingly rare, a celebrity famous not just despite his academic interests, but purely because of them. Most beloved scientists end up devoting more time to outreach and communication than pure science — which is fine, of course! — but Hawking’s scientific prowess was beyond question. The man has a type of radiation named after him, for heaven’s sake! How much more legit can a scientist be? And yet he still cared about the public, and making sure they “got” it, how amazing and truly understandable such work could be.

Like Einstein before him (whose birthday it coincidentally is today), Hawking symbolized scientific achievement and the vast potential of the human mind. His life inspired many of my colleagues and heroes. The world mourns his death not because black holes and physics are so cool (though they are), but rather as a testament to to the power of science — of our mental abilities to study the universe and understand even just a piece of it.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny,” Hawking once said. Today, it feels bit more tragic, but soon enough it’ll be funny once again.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • OWilson

    Ho hum!

    In this age of celebrity, being famous for being famous is the norm!

    He gets more hits on Google, unfortunately, than Newton or Einstein.

    Bill Nye gets more hits than them all!

    Neil Tyson’s little 200 page essay, “Astrophysics fof People in a Hurry” was a best seller and answered, in 200 pages or so, all the questions anyone has about the universe and life itself!

    For today’s generation, that’s more than enough!

    Now we need to know what’s the latest scandal in the Kardashian family, and is Brad still breaking Jen’s poor heart, and did you see the Simpsons last episode? OMG!

    • Charles Barnard

      Don’t take the media reporting on today’s generation too seriously–not everyone was a ne’ar do well hippy and only a tiny portion of today’s kids are superficial.

      Increasingly, many people’s real lives are terrible and they retreat to fantasy. While not substantiated, it seems to me that popular culture embraces fantasy when people feel helpless and hopeless.

      • OWilson

        They are a complacent and bored culture, ensured of material survival by virtue of that great $21,000,000,000,000.00 National Debt that they are running up for future generations yet unborn.

        Selfish, immoral, and Constitutionally criminal, as in “Taxation without Representation!”

    • Foolkiller

      I must respectfully disagree, Tyson’s book is superficial and his version of the Cosmos series was painfully sophomoric. Perhaps Tyson was not responsible for the cartoons and funny voices, but

      • OWilson

        Sounds like we agree?

      • Uncle Al

        Tyson is an accomplished huckster. Thank public education for that – “The Great Society,” the Department of Education, and rights.

        Make a problem complex, pervasive, and political. No solution exists! Nonsense. Suddenly end it, and its budget, as a whole. The first shot has been fired,

        _of_wisconsin.html (remove parens; all on one line)

  • JonahFalcon

    James van Allen had radiation named after him, too.

  • nik

    As Hawking was famous for black holes, maybe this would be an appropriate time to share an Idea.

    A short while ago, there was an article in the news, regarding some scientists, who had found a whole bundle of super-massive black holes, which were far more than they had expected, and that their calculations had predicted.

    This triggered an image in my mind, which was from the outside of our universe looking in, which was rather profound, but then I might be a tiny bit biased.

    Following that, a few days later, there was another item, that said a super-massive black hole had been found, which existed less than 1 billion years after the ‘big bang’ again when their calculations predicted that it should not be there.

    (Isn’t nature a bitch? It just wont behave itself and confine itself to human mathematics!)

    Anyway here’s my conclusion/suggestion/hypothesis.

    Imagine the singularity, (whatever that was,) which then explodes into a ball of incandescent expanding energy.

    As this ball of energy expands, it begins to condense into matter, energy being interchangeable with matter, (E=mc2), and gradually galaxies of stars and planets form, followed by black holes at the centres of these galaxies.

    The outermost galaxies, on the periphery of the sphere, eventually have all their stars absorbed by their super-massive black holes, which perhaps should now be described, as a super-humongous black holes.

    These super humongous black holes have had some 10 billion or more years to form, and many of them may have combined into even more super-super humongous black holes.

    So, the universe becomes enclosed in a spherical ‘cradle’ of super humongous black holes. The gravitational attraction of these will also be humongous, so, the matter and energy in the interior will be attracted by by them.

    Gravity attraction causes acceleration, so the material expanding within this sphere will also accelerate.

    Hence the acceleration of our expanding universe!

    In addition, these super humongous black holes will be entirely undetectable, as there is nothing outside of them which can be obscured by them, one of the normal methods of detecting black holes.

    This could then also explain the ”dark matter,” and accompanying ”dark energy” that seems to be missing in our universe, as you cannot have anything darker than a black hole.

    The next logical stage is that when all the interior matter has been absorbed, the super humongous black holes have only each other to absorb, and will gradually pull together, at an ever accelerating rate, until eventually they collide, at the centre of the sphere, in what has been hypothesised as the ”big crunch, and a new ‘singularity’ will occur, and the whole process begins over.

    • OWilson

      Good thinking!

      And, of course, it is just as viable as the Bible’s Genesis or that other unscientific miracle, a Big Bang that created everything from nothing!

      You may well be right!

      • nik

        I’ve sent the idea to a professor at one of the colleges I attended, London, Imperial, for his comments.
        I await, with bated breath. 😉

        • OWilson

          I’m doggedly defending science from political and religious huxters.

          When I see Al Gore, the Pope, Heinz-Kerry, Prince Charles, and the Hollywood crowd of airheads, pushing a scientific hypothesis, I feel it’s my duty :)

          And, a popular science magazine like Discover is the proper media to engage the subject! :)

  • Pieter Paauw

    What a impressive personality and role model. On his way now to make the biggest discovery of all….

  • nik

    I think the most amazing fact about him, was that he survived as long as he did.
    Of course, if he had been born even 20 or so years sooner, he probably would not have done so, and it was only the technology that was developed ”just in time” that allowed him to make his life meaningful.
    There were many scientists who were as accomplished, or more than he, but did not receive his fame, as they lacked his disability. So, his disability was actually an asset, rather than a liability.
    Rather strange really.

  • John Thimakis

    He battled the odds of his disease and achieved greatness.

    I think even black holes defied their enormous gravity to shed a year at his passing.

    RIP genius.

  • johnheno


    Stephen Hawking’s “theoretical” world was a surreal place where “Grand Design” existed without a grand designer, and natural laws popped into existence without a cosmic Law giver. The highway to Hawking’s godless “Theory of Everything” is paved with unanswered questions, casualty problems, unproven theories, unresolved paradoxes, ever more mysteries, and unverifiable “theoretical” constructs founded on dodgy concepts using fancy math. In reality Hawking’s godless “Theory of Everything” turns out to be a “theory of Nothing”. The scientific world cannot bring “anything” into existence by natural processes and godless causes alone – from scratch: Life and conscientiousness included. Hawking’s and his adoring disciples have all failed to grasp the absurdity of a finite humanity – with limited knowledge, understanding and insights – truly believing science can define the ultimate nature of ultimate reality – without God. As rightly stated by the Apostle Paul, “professing themselves to be wise they became fools . . . ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth”

    • John Thimakis

      So according to you and your hallucinatory friend Paul, Hawking was a fool?

      Your ancient book of fairy tales might have impressed or at least satisfied the minds of an ancient audience and indeed credulous children today that grow into adults like yourself who refuse or cannot see that these stories only give the appearance of answers. Written by superstitious and scientifically ignorant men.

      To say that “God did it”, is not an explanation at all. Miracles and magic are just a place filler, a gap fix for those too proud or arrogant to say they “don’t know”.

      It is brave men (and women) like professor Hawking that question what “you” claim you know already (via an ancient holy text) and propose answers based on math, science, philosophy and wherever else the evidence leads.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar