Stephen Hawking's death marks not just loss of a great physicist, but also a passionate science communicator

"What do Sheldon Cooper and a black hole have in common? They both suck." - Stephen Hawking, appearing in The Big Bang Theory.

Stephen Hawking will be remembered not just for being a great physicist, but also as the inspirational figure who brought the universe, black holes, space-time, and the future of our planet among other topics into the public consciousness. An iconic doyen of science outreach, he was a gifted communicator, willing to tackle the most difficult and perplexing topics (with an amazing sense of self-deprecating humour) and try to explain them to a lay audience, something quite unusual for a scientist of his stature.

As a physicist, his research into black holes and the origin of the universe pushed the boundaries of cosmology for several decades. Hawking attempted to combine relativity and gravity (that operates at very large distances of our universe) with quantum physics (that describes the workings of nature at the tiniest of length scales) to provide a better understanding of various phenomena in the universe. This led to many dramatic predictions – for example, that black holes could emit some radiation, and given enough time, even “evaporate” or disappear – with mind-boggling consequences.

Ed Witten, David Gross and Stephen Hawking in the TIFR lawns during the Strings 2001 conference. Image credit: TIFR photography section

Ed Witten, David Gross and Stephen Hawking in the TIFR lawns during the Strings 2001 conference in Mumbai. Image credit: TIFR photography section

Hawking was undoubtedly a “celebrity scientist” with a larger-than-life persona. Of course it helped that he worked in the field he did – the public has a fascination with ideas seen as esoteric – black holes, space time, the Big Bang etc. However, Hawking’s dogged defiance of his crippling medical condition was also a contributor to his fame. An intellectually brilliant mind, unfortunately confined to a wheelchair for life, but still conveying deep conceptual ideas in his now-iconic, computer-synthesized voice made him a universally recognised champion. His never-give-up philosophy and plucky humour were as important as his academic brilliance.

And then, there is the book.

Hawking’s A Brief History of Time — a non-technical description about the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe was a masterpiece. With a clear expository style, written for the general public with no prior knowledge of scientific theories, this book first appeared in 1988, before the days of the Internet and social media, and has remained an international best-seller for 20 years. For me, the defining characteristic of the success of this book is not so much the weeks on the best seller list or the X millions copies sold worldwide, but the fact that one can see street sellers “hawking” this book (a pirated edition perhaps) at traffic signals in Mumbai. How many books by a scientist make it to this level? It is also invariably the singular science book in the midst of the eclectic mix of self-help guides, thrillers, biographies, and rom-com novels in the cart of magazines and books at any railway platform.

Hawking’s sense of humour and his love for comedy meant that he was never shy of appearing on TV and video, which also made him accessible to millions more across the world, especially in the Internet age. Not many scientists would agree to appear on Star Trek, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, and Comic Relief, putting their reputation at stake. But Hawking positively enjoyed his cameo roles in the various sitcoms, delivering some amazing quips showcasing wry British humour. In his last appearance on radio, a BBC 4 adaptation of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, he lent his voice to the guide Mark II, a Prof Hawking character who remarks that “Some even read my books". He was always passionate about taking science to the public at large.

In his later years, he spoke and wrote not just about cosmology and astrophysics, but also about his concerns about the future of humanity on a politically and environmentally frail planet at risk from a nuclear war, virus, global warming, or other catastrophic dangers. (Some of his statements on contact with potential alien life of course made for interesting debates on social media). In 2016, Hawking teamed up with the Starmus music festival to setup the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, to recognize the work of those helping to promote the public awareness of science through different disciplines, such as music, arts and cinema.

I saw Stephen Hawking in person only once, during his visit to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 2001 for an international conference on string theory. His public lecture 'The Universe in a Nutshell' was perhaps the only talk in the Homi Bhabha Auditorium for which passes were distributed. Many who didn’t get the passes attended his technical lecture at the conference. I remember his talk on AdS-CFT and cosmology in a packed lecture hall, filled mostly with people who understood nothing of conformal field theories, but had come just to see the man — students, people from the administrative sections of the institute, faculty (including me!), among others. Thanks to his visit, ramps for wheelchair access were hurriedly constructed in TIFR, the beginnings of making the campus a little more accessible. While I wasn’t present, the story was that at the conference banquet Hawking rocked his wheelchair to the beat of 'Chaiyya Chaiyya', absolutely dil se! Knowing his character, it seems quite believable.

When history looks back on Stephen Hawking, he will be remembered not only for being one of the greatest physicists of his times, but perhaps more for bringing a bit of that physics into millions of homes across the world, and being an inspiration for young and old alike.

Out universe has lost a star of science communication. RIP Stephen Hawking.

Arnab Bhattacharya is the chair of the Science Popularisation and Public Outreach team at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. He tweets @tifrarnab, and can be reached at arnab@tifr.res.in

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2018 12:02:38 IST