Tributes have been pouring in for the eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who died earlier today at the age of 76. As well as enjoying a successful research career, Hawking also gained a place in popular culture for his bestselling book A Brief History of Time and his television appearances.
The UK’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who was a colleague of Hawking at the University of Cambridge, led the way, saying that Hawking’s name will live on in the annals of science. “Millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds – a manifestation of amazing will-power and determination.”
Fabiola Gianotti, director general of the CERN particle-physics lab, paid her respects too. “Each time Stephen Hawking visited CERN, we were impressed by his great enthusiasm, vitality and passion for knowledge,” she said. “He was a brilliant example on how to face disease with courage. He was a warrior.”
Paul Hardaker, president of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, called Hawking “a quite remarkable physicist and certainly a remarkable person [who] made several fundamental and lasting contributions to cosmology but is probably best known by the public for his passion and enthusiasm in sharing his knowledge of how the universe works.”
Books and beyond
Many physicists have commented on the huge impact of Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, which has reportedly sold 10 million copies. “Hawking, to everybody’s surprise, proved that the public has an interest in esoteric problems like what happens if you fall into a black hole, what happened at the Big Bang, or whether god had any choice when he created the laws of nature,” said theoretical physicist and author Sabine Hossenfelder. She called A Brief History of Time “a daring book about abstract ideas in a fringe area of theoretical physics”.
I remember sitting in the library at 17 reading A Brief History of Time, fascinating and wonderful ideas that helped inspire me to study physics and math. RIP Stephen Hawking, you did so much for science and the public alike.
— Jessamyn Fairfield (@ultrajessamyn) March 14, 2018
Many physicists have spoken of how Hawking inspired them to pursue a career in research. They include the astrophysicist Katie Mack who tweeted: “Reading about his work made me realize my dream was to become a cosmologist, and I did.” Physicist and comedian Jessamyn Fairfield tweeted: “I remember sitting in the library at 17 reading A Brief History of Time, fascinating and wonderful ideas that helped inspire me to study physics and math.”
Having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1964 and given just a few years to live, there were also tributes to Hawking as an inspiration to people with disabilities. On BBC Radio 5 Live one visually impaired listener described Hawking as “like Elvis to the disabled world”. The Motor Neurone Disease Association, meanwhile, tweeted: “Throughout his inspirational life Professor Hawking played a vital role in raising awareness of motor neurone disease around the world.”
Hawking also enjoyed a degree of celebrity unknown to his fellow physicists and made guest appearances on television including The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. He also appears in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, which is currently airing on BBC Radio 4. Actor and author David Walliams, who appeared in a television skit with Hawking tweeted “Thank you for being – amongst everything else – a great laugh.”