Bringing the Universe Down to Earth: In Memory of Stephen Hawking

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. – Stephen Hawking

Dr. Stephen William Hawking was a titan in the scientific community, a pathfinder who changed the very way we understand space and time. Though a British physicist and cosmologist who earned his PhD from The University of Cambridge – later to become the Director of Research for the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the same university – his impact was global. In 2009, President Obama awarded Dr. Hawking the Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of sixteen “agents of change.” This is the highest civilian award, and was in part due to his work on the theoretical physics of black holes.

While many are deservedly recognizing his scientific contributions today, what is most important to the Science and Technology Innovation Program are his contributions to the public communication of science.

Dr. Hawking is part of a legacy of scientists who not only created critical research, but also strove to make those achievements accessible to the public. The public communication of science was a cornerstone of Dr. Hawking's work, as he recognized that scientific findings did not exist in a black hole (pun intended!). His titles, such as A Brief History of Time which has sold over 10 million copies, gained not only notoriety in the physics community but were widely purchased abroad. To underscore the importance of theories in space, he brought physics down to earth.

But he also made himself accessible, capitalizing on popular media to make visible those who might be otherwise lost in the ivory tower. This is not a feat to make light of, considering that Hawking's own neurological condition made communication difficult without technology. In many ways, he not only made science more public but also caused many to question the limitations and prejudices society imposes towards an able-bodied society.

And Dr. Hawking did it all with a very dry wit.

Stephen Hawking being interviewed by John Oliver
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It was this confluence of personality, perseverance and -- above all -- intelligence that in many ways made him so accessible. You have to meet the public where they are. In popular media, Dr. Hawking’s first TV appearance was on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He appeared on a scene where he played poker with Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and an android. He has also made seven comedic appearances in the hugely popular show The Big Bang Theory. His other memorable cameos appearances include animated shows like The Simpsons and Futurama.

Dr. Hawking wrote about being on the shoulders of giants, and as a giant himself, he also provided a shoulder up for others.  In 2016, as part of the Starmus Festival, they developed the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication. Recognizing those in the scientific, artistic, and film communities, the essence of the award is to recognize those who "put science right at the heart of daily life." Award recipients include Hans Zimmer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jean-Michel Jarre, Jim Al-Khalili, "Particle Fever" and "The Big Bang Theory." This award embodies the diversity of ways that we can strive to make science accessible, that it does not have to be limited to peer-reviewed journals and books.

"Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change," Stephen Hawking once said. His legacy illustrates that one of those changes needs to be that we should encourage the public communication of science. It is just one of the many ways he inspired generations to look up at the stars.