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Mar 21 2018

Hawking, science, and a life of human cosmology

Photo by Stephen Shames

It’s been about a week since famed theoretical physicist, writer, and science communicator, Stephen Hawking passed away in his Cambridge home. Science enthusiasts everywhere are only beginning to grasp the sheer gravity of the situation.

If you’ve been following the news cycle, it’s clear we’re still amiss in the vacuum left by one of history’s most brilliant minds, and for good reason—few individuals will ever change the story of human endeavor the way Hawking tangibly did in our lifetime, whether it’s in the halls of academia or the greater landscape of popular culture.

Hawking was a man whose critical imagination could barely be contained by his body. Even as he struggled with a degenerative motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, of ice bucket fame), Hawking managed to live and work to the age of 76—no mean feat considering the life expectancy for ALS is typically pegged at 5 years following diagnosis. The man was a fighter.

Unlikely constellations

Photo by Elise Amendola

Hawking’s life was lived with an unquenchable passion for knowledge that persisted in spite of his time’s scientific conventions and his eventual disability. Unbeknownst to many, he also held a deep-seated belief that science should be taken in tangible, human terms. This was made clear in a 2010 interview with Parade where he says, “Science is not only a disciple of reason, but, also, of romance and passion.”

While he’s best known for his contributions to theoretical physics and cosmology, it’s also important to note that he didn’t just do science—he embodied it. In the minds of many, Hawking himself was a representation of what science was and could ultimately be—a human manifestation of the will to break far beyond our understanding of the universe.

July 21, 1999

Photo by Markus Schrieber

The idea that science doesn’t have to be an end in itself is crucial, as the inspiration found in seeing fellow humans overcome our tangled mess of a universe ultimately drives us forward, to greater things. “I believe everyone can, and should, have a broad picture of how the universe operates, and our place in it,” Hawking continues.

However, for a man whose life is steeped so squarely in the thought and practice of science and technology, Hawking was also cautious of technological advancement’s far-reaching societal implications. When asked about the looming issue of technological unemployment in a 2015 Reddit AMA, he says, “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

Photo by Jonathan Short

Ultimately, the ball’s in our court when it comes to charting our course for the future. Even after a lifetime punctuated in scientific breakthroughs, all it takes is a quick glance at his family to know that sometimes, science isn’t enough.

Hawking might have shone brighter than most, but let’s not forget that each human mind is a star that gives light to our ever-expanding universe.

We’ll see you wherever the arrows of time lead!