Jan 06 2012

Why Stephen Hawking is Cool

Stephen Hawking, Professor of mathematics and astronomy, Queen Mary, University of London, is turning 70 – a numerical milestone that is unremarkable in itself, but it does provide a reasonable excuse to look back and admire the career of the famous astrophysicist.

Hawking is a member of that rare club – the celebrity scientist. Apparently Albert Einstein was the very first member of this club – someone who is not just famous as a scientist among fellow scientists and intellectuals, but a true celebrity and household name.  Hawking is one of the few who have truly followed in his footsteps.

It’s interesting to think about how Hawking became as famous as a scientist as he is. Clearly he is a brilliant scientist. His major contribution that initially brought him attention was the hypothesis that black holes emit radiation due to quantum effects (called Hawking radiation). This may seem like an obscure phenomenon, but it was the first to unite quantum effects with general relativity and thermodynamics.

Brilliance is one aspect of his fame, but probably not enough on its own to explain it. The second contributor is possibly his medical illness. Hawking has ALS (which I have written about extensively before). He has an atypical form of motor neuron disease that has apparently stabilized, but not before rendering him mostly paralyzed. His function has declined over the years, but that may be just due to injured motor neurons having a diminished life expectancy rather than a progression of the disease process, but it’s hard to say for sure. He is now confined to a motorized wheelchair and needs to use a computer to communicate.

Hawking has therefore overcome a tremendous disability to have a long life and successful career, and that is admirable. But also it seems to me that Hawking is all the more iconic as a brilliant scientist because of the contrast to his frail body. It’s almost cliche – the massive brain inside the failing small body. The fact that Hawking’s computerized voice sounds robotic adds to the overall image – it would fit well in a cheesy science-fiction movie or comic book.

While his brilliance and disability contribute to his fame, I believe that these two factors alone were not enough. At least the contribution from a third factor is dominant, in my opinion, and that is the fact that Hawking very eloquently popularized science. His book, A Brief History of Time, is a brilliant piece of science popularization and is must reading for anyone interested in science, or just understanding the amazing universe in which we live.

Hawking defies the also cliche but thankfully rarely accurate perception that brilliant scientists are necessarily detached, unable to interface with “normal” people (at least if you believe anything you see on sitcoms).  Science is interesting and accessible – all it requires is a willingness for scientists to popularize their work and science in general and the ability to communicate well.

The ability to communicate is a separate skill set, not a general property of intelligence. You can be a brilliant scientist and not be able to lecture or write effectively. It is curious that the skill of communication is not more valued within the halls of science.

I had this conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, also an astronomer and brilliant communicator, and he credits Carl Sagan with blazing the trail for science popularizers, at least within astronomy and physics. While the situation is improving I don’t think that Sagan’s example has had as much of an influence on other fields. There is still a bit of a stigma attached to scientists who spend too much time interfacing with the public, and at the very least it doesn’t count for much academically.

This is a shame, and all the more reason that I admire those who have done it successfully, like Hawking.

Stephen Hawking’s coolness is therefore complex, but I think it has mostly to do with his willingness and ability to explain his field of expertise to the world. That is what has made a scientist working in an otherwise obscure field into a celebrity and a treasure.

Also, he has written his books in an incredibly tedious fashion. I broke my left wrist 10 years ago and had to type with one hand for a couple of months. I thought I would go mad (thank goodness it was before my blogging career). Hawking’s dedication to communicating to the public is all the more impressive when you think what he has to go through physically in order to do it.

Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday in on January 8th, in two days. Happy Birthday, Stephen, and thanks for being so cool.

10 responses so far

10 thoughts on “Why Stephen Hawking is Cool”

  1. tmac57 says:

    Terri Gross recently did an interesting interview with Kitty Ferguson about her biography of Hawking called ‘Stephen Hawking:An Unfettered Mind’. It sounds like an interesting book as well.

    here’s a link to the Fresh Air interview :


  2. HHC says:

    From another blog, I learned that Stephen Hawking was properly diagnosed at 21 years of age. He has had educational opportunities at Oxford University and has achieved in England. Certainly, he will have a happy celebration in England.

    Unfortunately, attitudes in college preparation of disabled students for careers has not always been enlightened. My favorite quote comes from a bright disabled female student at UIUC in the seventies. She traveled everywhere in her wheel chair. But she was counseled on campus to not pursue librarian science because she would not be able to reach the top shelves. I knew many frustrated disabled students who were counseled away from careers because of their physical disabilities.

  3. triptik says:

    Part of what makes him “cool” is that he also demonstrates a good sense of humor, about science, God, himself… He’s been on the Simpsons several times, and also Futurama, Star Trek… And his public presentations are not just educational, they’re entertaining.

    He is a serious scientist, but he doesn’t seem to take it too seriously. Where other scientists you see in documentary programs and the like seem very stern and stuffy and hardly crack a smile, he catches you off-guard with some quip or example or mental image that is genuinely funny.

    As a result of that humor he seems very approachable, and that just adds to the cool.

  4. banyan says:

    Wouldn’t Thomas Edison predate Einstein as the first science celebrity? Or does he not count because he was a mere engineer. 😉

  5. cwfong says:

    Ben Franklin?

  6. geopaul says:

    Hawking and Elvis…both on January 8th. How cool is that?

    Newton, Watt, Maxwell, Darwin, Tesla were all surely in the same class of celeb scientists, no?

  7. PharmD28 says:

    Just finished watching his special that is on netflix…episode 3 rocked my world….being that I am so ignorant about cosmology and the likes….

  8. There were famous scientists per- Einstein, but none were household names and true world class celebrities before Einstein.

  9. pro.reason says:

    If you did the “Off the Top of Your Mind” Test to the average person asking, Name a popular scientist, wouldn’t Stephen Hawking be in at least the top 3? The fact is, “popular scientist” is an oxymoron, with few exceptions. He’s one… and there you go.

    As always thanks for all you do, Steve.

  10. Captain Quirk says:

    I remember reading about Hawking radiation when I was a kid. Hawking and Einstein were inspirations to pursue physics, which I have known I wanted to do since I was 14 (though mathematician was tough competition as a career preference).

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