The most remarkable thing about Stephen Hawking—a pioneer of new insight into black holes, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics overall; an academic decorated with a Royal Society Fellowship, a Fundamental Physics Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and countless additional honors; a man who battled through the physical and psychological limitations of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and came out the other end one of the most important figures in scientific history—was perhaps not any one of these accomplishments, nor even the lot en masse. It was his spirit.
Yes, Hawking—who died early Wednesday morning at the age of 76—would undoubtedly be regarded with no deficit of esteem were his reputation to be narrowed exclusively to the parameters of his scientific work. Just as miraculous as his efforts within the fields of physics and cosmology, however, were Hawking’s achievements in couriering such wonders to the outside world, and vice versa. By way of the notability that surrounded his black hole theory, the popularity of his book A Brief History of Time, and his evermore ubiquitous presence not just as a figure of academia but one of international culture, Hawking brought what had always been alienating prospects within reach of the common mind. As eagerly as he educated did he encourage, for as long as he was a fixture of our planet.
Born in Oxford on Jan. 8, 1942, Hawking was gifted a family that championed education, a trait he’d come to inherit over time. University College, Oxford, welcomed Hawking in 1959, where he established himself not only as a force of intellect but a cherished campus personality; graduate studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge followed, ultimately directing Hawking to a career among general relativity and cosmology. Over the span of the 1970s, Hawking managed to break new ground in the study of black hole dynamics, first introducing, for instance, the theory that black holes emit radiation. Endeavors to follow included Hawking’s undertaking of inflation theory, entropy, quantum gravity, and countless other corners of the scientific world.
And all the while, especially as time carried forward, Hawking seemed to place just as much importance on the communication of his studies to the public, and what’s more the celebration of both his findings and the hunt therefor. It may seem disjointed to place Hawking's role as a proverbial cheerleader for the sciences on par with the sort of achievements that he managed by the grace of a mind most of us could only ever dream of occupying. But it'd be foolish to discount the gift that Hawking gave so many of us as anything less than his greatest accomplishment: the hope and belief that the impossible just might not be.
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