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Decoding Stephen Hawking’s impact on pop culture

Stephen Hawking wasn't just the pre-eminent scientific mind of our era, he was also the world's biggest celebrity scientist. Any pronouncement by him made front-page news

Stephen Hawking navigates the narrow streets between his home and the University in Cambridge. Photo: Alamy
Stephen Hawking navigates the narrow streets between his home and the University in Cambridge. Photo: Alamy

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OTHERS : New Delhi: When Stephen Hawking was asked to select his Desert Island Discs on BBC’s Radio 4 show in December 1992, he chose, among other things, Please Please Me by The Beatles. His other choices included Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, more in keeping with what one might imagine a genius mind to get stimulated by. But Hawking was thinking of The Beatles as he first heard them in 1962, when he was 20, the same age as Paul McCartney.

“Like many others, I embraced The Beatles as a breath of fresh air in the rather stale and sickly scene of popular music,” he said. “I used to listen to the top forty on Radio Luxembourg on Sunday nights.” Radio Luxembourg was only available on pirate radio in England at the time, so it’s hard to shake the image of a young Hawking fiddling with the dials and antenna of a transistor radio to catch a signal.

Hawking wasn’t just the pre-eminent scientific mind of our era, he was also the world’s biggest celebrity scientist; any pronouncement by him made front-page news. Consider the time, when, in November last year, Hawking made some dire predictions about artificial intelligence. At a technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, he said, “Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.” Quite fitting, then, that in the comic book Ultimate X-Men #25, Hawking writes a paper on the importance of mutants as a bulwark against the coming war with AI.

Also in November, in Beijing, Hawking pronounced that earth would be a fireball in 600 years. He was condemned as selling out when he appeared in an advertisement for BT in 1994 and said, “All we need to do is keep talking.” However, many saw that spot as inspiring, including Pink Floyd, who were quick to write a song called Keep Talking for their 1994 album The Division Bell, which sampled Hawking’s voice.

Nor should we forget that he was also one of the most successful non-fiction authors in the history of publishing.

A Brief History of Time (1988) has sold over 10 million copies in the past 20 years, and was on the New York Times best-seller list for a full five years, thus making it to the Guinness Book of Records. He professed great satisfaction, in a 2014 interview with the BBC, at the success of the book: “(People) should have the chance to understand the seemingly mysterious work of scientists.”

Such was the popularity of the book that it was turned into a documentary film of the same name by Errol Morris. The film was scored by the avant garde legend Phillip Glass. Hawking would go on to author several more popular books (12 in all), including 2010’s The Grand Design, in which he looked at the workings of the universe and came to the conclusion that it began and exists because of physics, and not God. That met with a backlash, to which Hawking clarified, on an ABC interview, “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, another scientist who is as much a pop phenomenon for his books and TV shows, admitted the importance of Hawking’s popular acclaim and the role he played in educating people about science. In an interview with Larry King, last year, Tyson said, “Stephen Hawking is not only a brilliant scientist, but he himself has committed so much of his life, time and effort in bringing the universe down to earth.”

German classical composer Rolf Riehm performed a piece in 2011 called Hawking. A bracing, noisy composition, the 35-minute piece was a commentary on Hawking’s life as well as his views on divinity. Riehm agreed with the physicist’s view and expressed his great admiration for a man who was, as Riehm wrote in his concert note, a “metaphor for the ceaseless extension of limits”.

Apart from TV, which elevated Hawking to cult status with appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, Hawking has been serially referenced in books and music. In science fiction legend Frederik Pohl’s 1986 novel The Coming of Quantum Cats, several versions of Hawking from several parallel universes make cameo appearances. In a Justice League of America comic book, Batman defeats a villain called Prometheus by downloading Hawking’s physical condition into him. In the ongoing BBC Radio 4’s dramatization of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Hawking is the voice of the famous intergalactic guide. In an earlier radio play on the book, Hawking had voiced the planet-sized supercomputer Deep Thought.

Hawking also was the most visible and well known person with disability in the popular culture landscape. And he took that responsibility quite seriously as well. In 1993, he met students with disability in Seattle University and told them that he was determined to get as much from his life as he could. “I didn’t die,” he said, unlike what his doctors had predicted. Recently, he told the BBC that the 2013 documentary Hawking was made to inspire those with disability.

“If one is disabled, one should concentrate on the things one can do and not regret the things one can’t do,” he said. In his 76 years, Hawking certainly did much, and then some.

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