The passing of Stephen Hawking has been noted around the world. I don’t have any very original insight into the man but my understanding is that he was a truly great physicist. However, astrophysics is notoriously a difficult subject for the layman to understand so his global fame is clearly not just about his breakthroughs in his chosen field. It has a lot to do with his triumph over extreme adversity. He was a heroic, inspiring figure to the millions of us who have no idea about black holes.
Hawking was more than a remarkable academic in another way, too. He was a cultural icon. He appeared in The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory. There is a recent film about his early life, The Theory of Everything. Hawking joked that it was accurate except that he was better looking than the actor who played him, Eddie Redmayne. The ability to crack a joke is an important part of being English. We liked that Hawking was not too “serious” to do so.
He also made a famous quip when he met the Queen in 2014. She asked him if he still had an American accent and he replied that he had copyrighted it. Possibly Hawking’s computerised “voice” is one of the most instantly recognisable in the world but in fact to an English ear it sounds rather American. The voice system by which he spoke was in the early years of its development when he adopted it, over 30 years ago, and that voice was the only real option. Later, as the technology progressed, he could have changed it to a more natural (and less American) voice but he chose to stay with it as it had served him well and it had become part of his persona.
Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time was a rare case of an academic tome becoming a bestseller. It has sold over 10 million copies. That doesn’t necessarily mean 10 million people read it. It was standard wisdom in Britain in the 1980s that many people bought it with the intention of getting educated on the subject but never finished it because they couldn’t understand it. If I remember correctly, there was a joke about the “Page 64 club”: people who read that far were an exclusive set.
One thing I happened to learn recently about Hawking is that although he is famous as a Cambridge academic, he was born in Oxford and attended Oxford University as an undergraduate before going to Cambridge. He is said to have estimated that he studied about 1,000 hours over his 3 year course at Oxford (which works out as about an hour a day). This is less even some of the lazy undergraduates I knew at Oxford but the difference is that Hawking didn’t engage with his subject because he found it too easy and went on to get a first class degree anyway.