Stephen Hawking inspired and educated millions, and will be missed

Hawking had an ability to make his ideas — and himself — accessible to the masses

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 14, 2018 7:58AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)

The word "icon" is thrown around a lot these days, but it's hard to imagine anyone challenging Stephen Hawking's claim to that title. The physicist died on March 14 at his home.

For many people, the name Stephen Hawking evokes the British man who wore thick glasses and was paralyzed by a neurological disease, who was confined to a wheelchair with nothing but a robotic voice to speak for him. This was the image that caused Hawking to become a source of inspiration for disabled individuals — whether suffering from his rare ALS-like disease or something else entirely — as well as to be parodied in pop culture properties throughout the universe (well, throughout Earth).

If you scratched the surface, you would quickly discover a mind so fascinating that it would have almost certainly become famous even if Hawking's own biography hadn't been dramatically compelling. "A Brief History of Time" is the ultimate primer for any layperson interested in learning more about astronomy, physics and cosmology in general. Wander past a high school or undergraduate cafeteria to hear random students discussing heady subjects like the creation of a unified theory and, more than likely, the majority of them will have either been inspired by Hawking's book or encountered it along their intellectual voyages.

Hawking leavened all of this genius with a sense of humor that widened his reach to audiences which may have otherwise never been exposed to him. You don't have to be a science nerd to have laughed at Hawking's cameo appearances on "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" and "The Big Bang Theory," to name a few, or yukking it up with talk show hosts like John Oliver and Conan O'Brien. This comedic sensibility did more than spread laughter, however; it also reinforced one of the defining characteristics of Hawking's career.

He may have had a distinct and beautiful mind, but that didn't mean he wanted his ideas to only be accessible to other people as uniquely intellectually gifted as himself. Everyone with an itching curiosity to understand the greater universe should be able to learn more about it.

Thanks to Hawking, that is now possible for far more people than would have been the case had he not joined us on our brief journey through the cosmos.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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A Brief History Of Time Physics Stephen Hawking