Stephen Hawking was famed for his intellect and the work he produced; his illness, motor neurone disease, and his ability to overcome it; and his sense of humour and personality. The combination of these things, amongst others, meant that he was one of the most important physicists of his age, and perhaps the greatest ambassador for science of his time, and ensured that he had a huge cultural, as well as scientific, impact on the world.
Hawking was admiral in his attitude to several things. in 1963, aged 21, doctors told him he would likely only live another two or three years, but speaking about his own mortality, he said, ‘although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before.’
He was hugely ambitious, claiming, ‘my goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.’ But while his ambitions were of the highest scientific level, he also regularly gave his opinion on mainstream scientific issues, such as nuclear war and genetics, as well as on religion and the general human condition, and institutions such as the NHS. As such he was always heard beyond the pages of scientific journals and essays, and created a popular persona so great that he appeared on shows such The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory.
One of his best known works, A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, is essentially a layman’s guide to cosmology (the study of the origins and evolution of the universe), and typified his eventual standing high up in both science and popular culture. Speaking about their intentions with the book, Hawking’s editor has said, ‘we were just trying to create a book that was scientifically accurate without being impenetrable to the general reader,’ but it would go on to propel the writer to main stream stardom.
This fame naturally made him an inspirational figure for other people with disabilities, while his willingness to share his opinions meant he also continued to cause occasional controversy. He was accused of sexism when he claimed women were ‘a complete mystery’, and offended religious people when he said God was not needed to get the university going. In an interview with The Guardian, he said: ‘I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.’
There was nothing cold about his scientific views, however. Hawking said ‘we have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.’ He believed in the miracles and magnificence of the world and the universe, some of which his work helped to explain.