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Famed Theoretical Physicist and Pop Culture Icon, Stephen Hawking, Dies at 76

Never in a million years did I think I would have to write about the death of Stephen Hawking. Hawking was one of the few people who appear to be part of the very essence of the universe, a pillar in life, science and pop culture; his death has shocked and saddened millions, including myself. A genius theoretical physicist and a brilliant scientist as well as a father, grandfather, activist and cultural icon, Hawking’s life was so incredible it’s only fitting that his death landed on the same day as Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday.

Stephen Hawking’s intellectual prowess was legendary and places him in the ranks of Einstein, Newton and Galileo. He was “considered by many to be the world’s greatest living scientist.” Hawking was incredibly well educated with at least twelve honorary degrees, a first-class degree from Oxford (which he earned by threatening to stay at Oxford for his Ph.D.) and a Ph.D from Cambridge. Hawking once said that “my goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” Hawking’s contributions to the scientific community helped unlock the mysteries of the universe. Hawking was one of the first to help prove “one of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science”: quantum fluctuations. Quantum fluctuations are “tiny variations in the distribution of matter” and Hawking showed that they might have been part of the expansion of the universe. Hawking also combined the Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Theory to theorize an answer to his original goal: space and time began with the Big Bang and would end with black holes. While he was an accomplished scientist, cosmologist, astronomer and mathematician, Stephen Hawking was also a bestselling author with his A Brief History of Time that sold 10 million copies, was translated into 40 languages and broke records by staying on the bestsellers list for 237 weeks.

Stephen Hawking was also an outspoken atheist, saying that, “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.” This has drawn the ire of many religious conservatives, even in death. Briscoe Cain, a Texas state representative, tweeted that Hawking “now knows the truth about how the universe was actually made” and when he received backlash he horrifically responded by saying that, “My tweet was to show the gravity of the Gospel and what happens when we pass, namely, that we all will one day meet our Creator face to face… [I] pray that he came to know faith before he passed.” Regardless if one agrees with Hawking’s atheism or not, it should be basic human decency to not insult the dead and send hateful comments at a time when his family and the scientific community is grieving.

Hawking’s death has also drawn controversy in regards to the ableist tones in many of the obituaries, eulogies and articles about his death. The LA Times reports that obituarties have been describing Stephen Hawking as someone who was ‘”confined” or “chained” to a wheelchair, as someone who “overcame” his disability and succeeded in spite of it.” CNN’s article on Stephen Hawking’s death had to be edited after publication because it referred to the renowned scientist as “wheelchair-bound.” There’s even a picture making its way around social media that shows Hawking walking off into the stars, leaving behind his wheelchair.

Hawking said himself that his disabilities have not hurt him in his field and have in fact helped him, at least by getting him out of “lecturing and administrative work.” At age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Given only two years to live, Hawking surpassed all odds living over fifty years after his diagnosis. Hawking was left paralyzed and only had use of a few fingers. His wheelchair provided him with great mobility and he had a speech synthesizer that allowed him to speak. It’s so unfortunate that in his death Hawking’s disability is being portrayed as something he needed to escape when in life Hawking’s very existence defied and practically taunted this erasure.

The brilliant physicist challenged assumptions about people with disabilities by refusing to hide or follow convention. All too often, people with disabilities are seen as not having a voice of their own and not being able to live the same full life as others. Hawking refused a new, less robotic voice when offered an upgrade because that computerized voice was his, and it most certainly was. Hawking’s voice appears in Pink Floyd’s  song “Keep Talking”, he has been animated in The Simpsons and Futurama and  he appears as himself in a 2014 “Monty Python Live” show, The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek. Hawking and his voice is instantly recognizable and famous. He has also been married twice and has three children and three grandchildren. At Cambridge, he would use his wheelchair to drive wildly along the streets, run over students’ toes and even go to college parties. Essentially, Hawking was not limited by disability or his wheelchair or computerized voice; in fact, these devices allowed him to live a life that was fuller and more fantastic than most and to grow to a legendary status, not only on Cambridge’s campus and the scientific community but also in pop culture and activism.

Hawking used his fame for activism and to become a symbol for those with disabilities. He wrote that it was a “shared moral duty to remove barriers to participation for disabled people”  in the 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report, and went in front of the United Nations (UN) to support the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He was a feminist and lent his support to equal representation of women in the private sector. He also lent his support to the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by boycotting an Israeli conference. He also raised his voice against Donald Trump as part of the 375 scientists who were concerned by the U.S.’s desire to the leave the Paris agreement in regards to climate change. Months before his death Stephen Hawking was still working on activism, protesting cuts to the National Health Service (NHS) of Britain. After a long life filled with the most incredible experiences from being named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position once held by Newton, to earning a Presidential Medal of Freedom, being named Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to becoming a member of the Royal Society at age 32, Stephen Hawking leaves behind an unforgettable legacy that will live on forever—or at least until the universe ends in a black hole.

Emily Janikowski, otherwise known as Em, can be found usually lurking in the depths of the Polsky building as a writing tutor, and when she isn't there, she is curled up in bed binge watching Law & Order SVU. Her passion lies in changing the world, and she hopes to accomplish this through majoring in social work.
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