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March 26, 2018 | by  | in News |
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A Discipline of Reason, Passion, and Romance

Professor Stephen Hawking was arguably Einstein’s successor. While there will never a figure as unique or unparalleled as he was, his legacy as both a physicist and as a spokesperson for science and the value of knowledge created a path that many can follow.

One of the most interesting pieces of discourse to appear after Stephen Hawking’s passing was his passive role as a disability advocate. Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21, and the progression of his condition required him to use a wheelchair. When he spoke at sold-out shows in lecture halls across the globe, the first consideration any organisers had to make was whether he could gain access to the building at all. His prominence had the net benefit of increasing awareness for disability access. It’s tempting to reach for a poetic irony to contrast the grandiose scale of his work and the debilitating condition that “confined” him to his wheelchair, as some news outlets unfortunately did in their obituaries. If anything, he was proof that, if given the care necessary to reach equity, anyone can succeed and thrive. What is particularly damning is that his remarkable longevity was mostly due to the National Health Service, a fact that tacitly shamed other countries who may have lost Hawkings of their own far too early due to lack of public healthcare.

After having to undergo an emergency tracheotomy in 1985, he lost the ability to speak, and soon after began using his signature computer speech synthesiser, which came programmed with a slight American accent. When he was later offered to upgrade to a voice more reflective of his natural English accent, he refused, as his first one had become part of his personal brand. It’s that idea of accessibility and desire to communicate his work to the public that speaks to one of Hawking’s greatest strengths as an individual. Arguably, he’s one of the best science communicators in our lifetimes. Though he once joked that A Brief History of Time was the best-selling but least read book ever published, he recognised that people wanted to engage with his work, and with science overall. By all accounts, he was always provocative, warm, and never afraid to make light of his heady profession because he had faith in his work and his audience.

To be in any scientific discipline is to grapple with the Sisyphean realisation that your work will never be finished, inasmuch as you can only make a sizeable dent in your field’s progress before you ossify into the shoulder of whatever giant you stood upon. Physics is unique in that it sets itself an end goal, to find a “theory of everything”. There’s something immensely attractive about the idea that you can make sense of it all. Hawking, having never lost his undergraduate sense of self-confidence, sought and provided answers to some of the most bold, complex questions we have about the universe. His work still isn’t finished: two weeks before his passing, a paper he worked on detailed a experiment to test whether or not there is a multiverse.  

Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall, a colleague of Hawking, shared an anecdote with The Economist from when she happened to meet Hawking while she was using crutches. Upon seeing her, Hawking remarked: “Physicists like to climb mountains and fall off them”.  If we should take any lesson from his legacy, it’s that we should help each other climb those mountains together.

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