What I Learnt From… Stephen Hawking

I’m going to confess, I don’t know much about Stephen Hawking, the scientist who died today at the age of 76.

Here’s what I do know.  He was a scientist who wrote a book called A Brief History Of Time, he had motor neurone disease and he once told Sheldon Cooper that he made “quite a boner” on page 2 of a paper.

That doesn’t make writing a proper blog post / obituary type affair particularly easy, but there’s a reason for my doing it.

Here is that reason.

As a kid, Stephen Hawking was the first scientist I knew of.  This was back in the day where scientists could find the spotlight on TV based not just on intelligence but on being celebrities.

Before Hawking wrote the book that catapulted him to fame, his story had already been told in the New York Times magazine.  As his publicist put it when writing for the Telegraph, this was “a Cambridge astrophysicist sought to solve the great mysteries of the universe, while he himself was trapped in a wheelchair by a progressive neurogenerative disease.”

So this is not to say that Hawking wasn’t famous, and especially that he wasn’t famous for the battles that made his life less than straightforward.

What this is to say is that despite everything he faced, he was the first man I knew as a scientist.  As a kid, when you were playing and you needed to consult the cleverest man on the planet, you spoke to Stephen Hawking.  So when I was thinking about Stephen Hawking’s passing this morning, it struck me that he was an inspiration simply by being what he wanted to be.  To me, looking at it here and now, before all the TV appearances, Hawking’s fame and celebrity was incidental to being a brilliant scientist.

He was Stephen Hawking the scientist, followed by Stephen Hawking the celebrity in a world that now will not always place importance in that order.

There is an obvious cliche of facing challenges head on as the inspiration for this post.  Whatever lessons Stephen Hawking may teach me in the future if I could ever have the patience to read a book cover to cover, the lesson that I wanted to take is that you don’t always have to try to be an inspiration to people, it can just happen.  You don’t have to look for it and you don’t have to recognise it or do anything special to foster it and perpetuate it.  It can just happen that people can see you do something naturally and be inspired by it.

And with that, it wouldn’t be right not to finish with the statement issued by Hawking’s children.

We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.

He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever.

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