Stephen Hawking: A Life “To Infinity, and Beyond!”

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Stephen Hawking experiences zero gravity over the Atlantic. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

If there ever was a man who lived a life that truly lived every day by the motto we all remember from our high school english classes “Carpe Diem.” that man was Stephen Hawking. Although I agree, Hawking did live his remarkable life by that motto, I feel like a more appropriate motto for Hawking would be one from our old Pixar friend Buzz Lightyear: “To Infinity and Beyond.” In my humble opinion, this is far more fitting of man man who sought to understand the universe and the world we live in – and defied that universe and world by continuing to survive in a world that deemed it impossible for him thrive, let alone survive.

I was saddened when I woke up to the news of the passing of Stephen Hawking earlier this week. I have always been someone who loves an underdog story and while he might not argue it himself, many of us would have put Hawking squarely in the underdog box. What surprised me the most about his passing, however, was definitely my students knowledge of his death at the age of 76. What would my students know about a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author of note when I am pretty sure most of them can’t even spell the word physicist?¹

I teach high school freshman (typically 14-15 year olds for those unfamiliar with the American public school system) and although the narrative that teenagers of that age are self-absorbed and only care about themselves is dangerously misinformed, pieces of that narrative ring true every now and then. I was confused as to how they would know about Stephen Hawking, someone who refused a knighthood from the British government over their funding (or lack thereof) in the late 1990s? The answer was so simple that I immediately wanted to punch myself for trying to knit with only one needle. I could almost hear Mr. Hawking’s distinct computer-generated voice saying “Bless your heart.”

My students are familiar with Stephen Hawking because, like millions of other people all over this country, they watch The Big Bang Theory. Even though you don’t need me to tell you (because if you watch CBS at all they tell you so often they must think we are deaf or dumb as a post and can’t remember) Big Bang is one of the highest rated comedies on television right now. It originally was about 4 scientist friends with an emphasis on 2 of the 4 (Leonard and Sheldon) and their interactions with the “dumb blonde” (Penny) who moves across the hall from the two scientists who are also roommates. My Papa loved The Big Bang Theory, a show he renamed Sheldon.

Although over the years the show has expanded to included more members (Bernadette, Amy Farrah Fowler, Stuart the Eeyore-like comic book store owner) the general premise has remained the same. One thing that has remained constant since the beginning has been the references to Hawking and his revered status in the physics community. Although Howard has playfully poked fun at the sound of Hawking’s “voice,” the high regard they show him on the show for his role in making physics “cool” to millions of people has been one of the few unbroken rules on the show. The episode where Sheldon,  who is not crazy, his mother had him tested – is one of most watched episodes of the entire series.

 

For those of you who do not watch The Big Bang Theory allow me to put the clip above into context for you. If Sheldon were a real person, this would go down as the most amazing/most embarrassing moment in his life. For Sheldon this is the celebrity he would most want to meet. If you still can’t comprehend or understand, here is a close list of alternatives of what it would be like:

  • Any of the Boliek Siblings meeting Beyoncé. Or Blue Ivy. Or Rumi. Or Sir. Or Solange. Or pretty much anyone associated with Beyoncé.
  • My dad meeting Ric Flair.
  • Every 20-something female in America meeting Megan Markle and secretly wishing they could club her over the head and trade places with her.
  • Most 10 year old boy (or girl) meeting Batman, Superman, or any of those other “super powered” mans that make up heroes.
  • Every 10 year old girl (or boy) breaking down meeting Wonder Woman.
  • Every gay in America feeling their oats over meeting whichever pop queen it is that slays them and gives them life.
  • Every Trump supporter getting to meet Vladimir Putin to tell him thank you over putting that current monstrosity in the White House.

Now that you have sufficient context as to understand the clip above, I’ll move on. Through his appearance on TBBT and other shows over the years, Hawking cemented what I think will end up being one of the most important pieces of the great legacy he leaves behind: to the delight of nerds everywhere, Hawking made science relevant and cool. After doing some research I now know there are several college courses that focus on the influence of TBBT. Thousands of science teachers across the country (shoutout to my friend Lisa Ms. Howell who has told me she is one them) have been able to use a primetime network sitcom in an actually productive way to help demonstrate a concept or principle. And to the chagrin of animal rights activists everywhere, millions of us who watch the show now can claim to know (although we still don’t probably understand fully) the equation below:

scrod

To those of you still confused allow me to put it in the terms you and I understand. That is the equation that goes along with the thought experiment most of us will collectively know as the paradox called “Schrodinger’s Cat. And TBBT fans everywhere let out a collective “Oh yeah! The possibly dead/possibly alive cat in the box!” For those who don’t watch the she show you can find a detailed explanation here. The author has no desire to pretend to know enough to teach the concept to you.

Putting the humor aside for a second, I want to focus on the lesser know side of Hawking’s life for a second: his earlier years. I myself had no knowledge of Hawking being born in an abled-body until I saw the movie The Theory of Everything. If you have yet to see it, I highly recommend it. It details the earlier years of years of Hawking’s graduate schooling and it includes his romantic relationship with the woman who eventually became his wife. If that is not enough to get you to see it maybe this will: it stars resident dreamboat Eddie Redmayne² as Stephen Hawking. For his performance of Hawking, Redmayne won a host of awards including an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

If you have not watched the trailer above, stop and do it. Towards the end of the trailer, Redmayne has a voiceover where he says a quote that Hawking gave in an interview around the same time his book A Brief History of Time. It is a quote that Hawking lived his life by, and now more than ever, one we would all do well to take to heart:

There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. Where the is life, there is hope.

While many of us would be curled up in the fetal position about being diagnosed in our 20’s with a rare form of early onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, but in America more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease)³, Hawking never once let that stop him on his great quest to understand the relationship between space and time and how they fit together in our universe. Given just two years to live based on knowledge of the disease at that time, Hawking surpassed expectations by surviving for another four and a half decades. Racking up numerous accolades along the way, Hawking gave us research that has helped change the world, but more importantly he showed that people living with ALS – just like people living with countless other disease – are no less capable of living their full lives. All they need is to be given the chance.

If there every was a person worthy of The Today Show’s A Life Well Lived it would be Stephen Hawking. And although I have my own personal beliefs about what happens to us all eventually, I believe that as soon as Hawking crossed over, he had all the answers to the questions he searched so hard to answer. Mr. Hawking, you strove to go to infinity, and now you are beyond. I thank you for what you gave us, and I hope it is everything you thought it would be. And so much more.

 

¹ I include myself as one of those bad spellers. Physics is a hard word. Sue me.

² Although he is a resident dreamboat, I still have a bone to pick with Eddie Redmayne. Nobody should look that good, be a ginger, have cheekbones for days, AND be able to sing. Its just not fair.

³ ALS is a disease that millions across the US have been diagnosed with. Although there is currently no known cure, we are making great strides thanks to an increase in awareness (thank you ice bucket challenge) and great research being done across the globe. If you can spare a few dollars, why not donate to any of the numerous great organizations like The ALS Association, Project ALS, or The ALS Development Therapy Institute. All three organizations are leading the way on finding a cure for this disease. If research continues at the present rate, we should have a cure in our lifetimes.

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