In my late 1980s / early 1990s elementary school, we had Mr. Wizard. In middle school and then high school there were teachers who regularly took us back to Carl Sagan. The theories were spelling binding, but once I found out you needed some math chops to get past the theory, my pursuit became “for entertainment purposes only.”
In college, talking BIG PICTURE as college kids are wont to do, someone asked me if I had ever read Stephen Hawking. I had heard of A Brief History of Time, but never picked it up. They told me to check out The Universe in a Nutshell first. I’m as much still thinking about that book as I am still thinking because of that book.
From Nutshell, I went back to A Brief History, discovering the likes of present day thinkers like Michio Kaku, scientific philosophers like Karl Popper, and science fiction classics like Flatland along the way. That one book took several prior interests and showed me the paths (with pictures and footnotes!) to go off and explore them on my own. Maybe I couldn’t do the math, but these people could – AND they were willing to curate the interesting parts to me in a way that I could actually understand.
Hawking, famously wheelchair bound with ALS and speaking through his computer, knew the value of communication. You can subjectively have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t tell anybody else about it – it’s not objectively great. Science requires testing, validation, and therefore failure. Hawking was never afraid of failure.
Communication is an activity. It’s something you do. Eventually, if you put in the work, it can be something you get good at. From his lectures unaided in his wheelchair, to the eventual computer assistance, Hawking put in the work despite physical obstacles that I can’t begin to imagine. Once he got those ideas out, we found out just how objectively fascinating they really were.
So to Stephen Hawking I say thank you. For the lessons, the humor, and the humility – you will be missed.
A few of my favorite quotes:
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
“The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”
“Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”