Stephen Hawking was not the kind of guy I thought would ever die.
Prior to it happening, I did not think about Hawking’s death very much. I figured that, if he could live far beyond his predicted lifespan with a crippling disease and remain a prominent figure in modern culture, there was nothing that could kill him. Maybe he would be one of the first to upload his consciousness into a computer, or the chair and his own willpower would keep him alive until scientists found cures for aging and ALS.
Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo. He attended Cambridge University, mostly because nobody was studying cosmology at Oxford at the time, and went on to gain many prestigious titles including (but not limited to), Fellow of the Royal Society (1974), Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at the California Institute of Technology (1974), and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (1979-2009), a post first held Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking was instrumental in developing our modern theories of the universe, especially the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics, leading to various discoveries that shaped our understanding of what it means to exist. He gained immense popularity with his book, “A Brief History of Time,” which stayed on bestseller lists for 237 weeks, and continued to use it to popularize his ground-breaking theories. Hawking regularly put himself “out there” in ways that many scientists never did and was open to being proven wrong (he lost multiple bets, but always in good nature). A major proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (the “infinite alternate dimensions” theory), Hawking popularized various concepts that were not thought to exist outside science-fiction.
However, his work extended far beyond theoretical physics. Due to his very apparent disability, Hawking became a figurehead for disability awareness and was living proof that those with a disability were still capable of doing extraordinary things. He was also a vocal supporter of nuclear disarmament, artificial intelligence, stem cell research, and universal healthcare, and advocated against the invasion of Iraq, “Brexit”, and “Trumpism.” Hawking never fit in to your typical “awkward nerdy scientist” stereotype, instead opting to express himself publicly. He regularly appeared in episodes of Futurama and The Big Bang Theory and was even featured in Monty Python Live (Mostly), running down Brian Cox in his wheelchair. Hawking played an essential role in taking away the impersonality of science and bringing the beauty of it to the masses, paving the road for celebrities like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and increasing the interest in science of young people everywhere.
Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14, 2018, exactly 139 years after the birth of Einstein. March 14 is also considered “Pi Day,” as the first three decimals of π are 3.14. It appears that the universe aligned perfectly so that Hawking’s life was irrevocably intertwined with the wonder of mathematics (and the Gregorian calendar). Hawking was living proof that “impossibilities” are only limitations that we place on ourselves. His intelligence lied not in his IQ (he has been quoted saying, “People who boast about their IQs are losers,”), but in his steadfast belief that innovation is only ever found in those willing to change. He had an amazing way of looking at the universe: filled with possibilities and worlds to explore, and he had the desire to discover it all. Wherever he is, I can only hope that he has found all the answers he spent his life looking for.