I’ve had complicated feelings about Stephen Hawking for many years and now that he has passed, I am even more conflicted.
A Brief History with Stephen Hawking
Like many people of my generation, I got “A Brief History of Time” for Christmas when it came back way back in the day. I must have read it a dozen times in the first few weeks. My mother knew what she was doing. I had just started High School that year and science was my thing. Devouring all of the science books at the school and city library, I counted myself as one of the people who worshiped Hawking. Thinking he was the most important thing to science and physics since Einstein. I felt that way for many years.
The College Years
For those of you that don’t know, I have a degree in Math and Physics. Unlike many of my high school classmates, I didn’t go to college right out of high school. I was in my mid 20’s when I started my degree. Originally, the plan was to get a degree in Electrical Engineering, but that didn’t hit my ticky buttons like I hoped it would. Switching majors, I was able to find my place. After getting through the basic classes, the good stuff started. The real juicy classes of quantum mechanics, waves and optics and the history of physics.
You can’t write a coffee table book about some topics
Getting into the advance classes was a real eye opener for me and the other 15 people in my graduating class. The first day of Intro to Quantum Mechanics, saw the professor throw a copy of *“A Brief History of Time” into the garbage and utter the lines “You can’t write a coffee table book about some topics.” That year shattered my view of the contributions of Hawking and other celebrity scientists. Yes, they all did important work, but not as important as they made it out to be. In my physics department and others I got to visit while in college, Hawking was regarded as a hack. I think they were jealous they they didn’t write the book.
The Hawking Effect
Let’s get one thing straight. Stephen Hawking is a good scientist, not a great one, not a revolutionary one. He didn’t do anything that revolutionized Physics as a discipline. He did make some major contributions to Cosmology, especially with his work on black holes, Hawking Radiation and information theory. Some of his work can’t be verified and other might take years for verification. Such is the work of theoretical physics. None the less, his work is important to a niche field and even then it is contested by others in the field. Leonard Susskind, will be the first to say that Hawking’s science is hooey, but his importance to science is immeasurable.
Imagine a world where someone else wrote that book. The people of Reddit and the average person would see that person as the most important scientist since Einstein. If he hadn’t wrote that book, the average person wouldn’t know who he was or what he did. The only people who would know about him would be those who took classes in astrophysics or upper level physics classes. That’s how important his work is in the grand scheme of things. It would get taught but not at entry level classes.
Stephen Hawking’s most important contribution to science was the popularization of String theory. Between his ability to distill a complex topic to something that doesn’t want to make your eye bleed. Combine that with his battle with ALS and his likable personality, you had a perfect combo at the right time to be the face of science after the passing of Sagan and Feynman. He inspired unknown number of people to go onto STEM related fields and made science a dinner table topic for millions of households in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Regardless, Science lost an important person yesterday. It will take a giant to fill his shoes and might be another generation before someone who inspires so many people with SCIENCE!