If you know even little bit about Stephen Hawking, then you know that you’re dealing with someone so extraordinary that his life and work might seem to be fashioned from the pages of science fiction. As a physicist, Hawking pushed our understanding of black holes into new frontiers, but as a person, he is nothing short of an enduring example of someone who just will not give up.
Today is his 74th birthday: happy birthday, Professor Hawking!
Like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking occupies a category of brilliant people who we might call rockstar scientists. This isn’t just because of his breakthroughs in uniting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity with the field of Quantum Mechanics, but because he brought the power of his ideas to the people. If the show Cosmos was the fastest way for a lay person to feel smart about outer space, then Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is literally the biggest gift to amateur lovers of science and space, perhaps ever. Make no mistake: being someone who is able to imagine what actually went down during the Big Bang is one thing. Being able to write about it in a book designed to be read by literally anyone? That’s the mark of a scientist who is also an artist.
Hawking is also a flexible thinker, a guy who has revised his major beliefs about the origin of the universe on more than one occasion. He once said that “[t]he greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” To this end, he’s constantly striven to perfect his theories and beliefs about the universe. A Brief History of Time was published in 1988, but was revised in 1996 and 1998. In 2005, Hawking wrote an illustrated book called The Universe in a Nutshell which can turn any person—even someone completely ignorant of astrophysics, quantum physics, or general relativity—into a chatty, science-loving enthusiast.
Stephen Hawking was called a “worthy successor” to Isaac Newton by Carl Sagan in the original introduction to A Brief History of Time. Hawking was longtime friends with Sagan and also Kip Thorne, all of whom form a kind of Holy Trinity of scientists in the late 20th century. He has been awarded everything from the Wolf Prize to the Albert Einstein Award, and even the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts.
All of this would be impressive stuff for anyone in any field of study, but what makes Stephen Hawking so remarkable is the fact that he’s accomplished all of this in spite of the fact that he was stricken with early-onset ALS when he was only twenty-one. If you have a hard time wrapping your mind around any of Professor Hawking’s theories, try wrapping your mind around this: when the diagnosis came, Hawking was only given two years to live. Imagining a universe without Stephen Hawking now seems almost unthinkable, but the fact that he defied those odds is simply staggering.
For years now, Stephen Hawking has communicated through a computer, speaking in that computerized voice that many of us know so well. Through his perseverance, Hawking has furthered the medical world’s understand of ALS and how to combat it. Beyond having a mind that is capable of scaling seemingly infinite heights of contemplation and scientific inquiry, Hawking is, above all, someone who believes in hope winning out.
How has Stephen Hawking continued to live and work all these years, despite science believing initially that he wouldn’t? Well, science, and particularly the fields of physics that Hawking explores, are beautiful specifically because they have the ability to change and grow, to accommodate new ideas and new ways of thinking about things. In A Brief History of Time, Hawking jokes about the famous notion of the Earth resting on the back of a turtle and that it’s “turtles all the way down,” but he doesn’t believe it for a second. Stephen Hawking is living proof that your mind can transform the physical world around you; that the human spirit, when combined with intellect can reach far beyond our simple corporeal bodies. And this isn’t mystical mumbo jumbo: Hawking himself is the proof that our human souls are amazing, indomitable, shining things.
Which is why, today on his birthday, it’s fitting to toast this man, the author of so many brilliant and elaborate theories, with his own most simple, heart-warming statement of conviction: “While there’s life, there’s hope.”
Thank you Dr. Hawking! You give hope to us all.