Stephen Hawking once said, “Without imperfection, neither you or I would exist.” Hawking, considered by many to be one of the best theoretical physicists of our age, died on Mar. 14.
I remember when I read the news. It was late at night (Hawking’s time zone had entered the next day). I was scrolling through Facebook, just like any regular college student does when they should be doing their mathematics homework.
When I saw Hawking had passed, I entered a state of mild disbelief. I’m not a physicist, nor do I plan on being one. Even so, Hawking’s passing left me feeling a little down. He had been a well-known public figure my whole life. When I asked my father who the smartest person alive was, he said Hawking.
For those who don’t know, Stephen Hawking wasn’t just ultra-super brilliant. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative nerve disease. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21 years old and was told he had two years to live. Eventually, the disease paralyzed him from head to toe.
But, it got me thinking. Most students think of science or math as a rigid, unattached, perhaps uninspired field. People don’t get excited, they don’t throw parties. Science is cold and calculating. I think Hawking shows the complete opposite.
Science does need inspiration, it does need enthusiasm, it does need a degree of the human element. Hawking was just that: he was inspiring, he was enthusiastic and he did bring the human element.
The inspiring point is fairly obvious. A man who literally couldn’t move a muscle for most of his life was one of the most impactful. I’m a student. I complain. A lot. But nothing I could utter would even come close to what Hawking went through. We would all understand if Hawking said, years ago, “I’m done. I can’t do the work.”
No one would blame him. But he kept going. I’ve written in the past about how USD needs to put science in the spotlight more often. Inspiration is another reason why. We talk all the time about how students need inspiration and/or role models. Well, so do science students. Many of the major physicists we hear of today like Neil deGrasse Tyson speak of their idols. Tyson’s was Carl Sagan. Einstein adored Newton.
Younger physicists like YouTuber Tibees, a physics Ph.D. student in Australia, provides an excellent idol for young women wanting to get into science. Hawking certainly is an idol, but more importantly, he shows why we need idols in science. Science can appear to the uninitiated as cold and dry. Only the smartest and, dare I say, dullest, only the quintessential nerd can partake in the enterprise. Young people need the likes of Hawking to show them anyone can do science, no matter what limitations they have.
Hawking also shows why enthusiasm is essential for a healthy scientific culture. Hawking has some of the best interviews, like one with John Oliver. He had a passion for what he did. Students in science can tell you about their passion for their subject, but the fact remains that those outside of science don’t realize how important passion is for the sciences.
Finally, Hawking displayed the human element. He did a fantastic job expressing the science, the mathematics in ways that touch our humanity. Just look at the quote at the beginning of the article.
Consider another quote: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.”
Science is not just a way of knowing the universe: it helps us to understand ourselves and who we are. Rest in peace, Stephen.