BEYOND THE BLACK HOLE
Rare onset of fatal illness in the 20s, socio-cultural rules about ‘coolness’, or the science behind the big, scary universe — Stephen Hawking’s life proved that no real or metaphorical black hole is permanent, writes UMANG AGGARWAL
A nerd with a very visible disease, coupled with speech impairment in the early 20s — only Stephen Hawking could have added ‘cool’ to that description. The “dude in the chair” did that and how! Even before one Googles the details of the awards he has won, the research papers he has written, and the speeches he has delivered, one knows that he managed to do something incredible. That’s because he managed to stay relevant — not just for the people interested in science, space, or mathematics, but for anybody who was interested in living and achieving. Actually, his relevance goes beyond even that parameter — even if one is more inclined towards dying and doubting the self, a brush with Hawking’s way of life could change their mind.
On the morning of March 14, 2018, when the news of the celebrated physicist passing away broke, it wasn’t just his exceptionally brilliant scientific theories that he was remembered for, it was also for the feat of redefining ‘interesting’ in the popular culture. Hawking broke down the invisible cultural wall between science and prime-time entertainment and between physical disability and stylishness.
Even his death has invited tweets and posts like, “How can Hawking be dead? Did anyone try plugging him back in yet?” While some find these ‘jokes’ about his physical condition and his heartbreaking death cruel, insensitive
or inappropriate, anybody who followed him would know that the “chair genius” himself would not have taken offense at these. Not only could he take such jokes sportingly, he also had the knack to come up with a wittier response to them, each time.
Generations of science enthusiasts would emphatically agree that they owe a large part of their new-found social popularity and acceptability to Hawking. Albert Einstein was the crazy, eccentric, weird genius. Stephen Hawking inherited that and also transformed that by adding adjectives like ‘badass’ and ‘awesome’ to the idea of a genius. The best-known link between ‘hardcore science’ and popular culture before Stephen Hawking was probably the movie and TV adaptations of science fiction novels. It took Hawking to really cement the bond between geeks and popularity.
Hawking’s appearance on popular American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, is one of his most recent and celebrated contributions to pop culture. The scientist plays himself in Season 5, Episode 21, of the show where Sheldon Cooper, the character who is portrayed as a brilliant but socially ‘weird’ scientist, manages to meet his hero. The episode is titled ‘The Hawking Excitation’. The physicist made another appearance in Season 8, Episode 14, of the show, ‘The Troll Manifestation’, and shows Hawking anonymously trolling the work of two scientist characters on the show. Drawing on his much-appreciated sense of humour and sporting spirit, he makes light of his physical condition by saying that he trolled them because: “If you were sitting in a chair for 40 years, you would get bored too.” This had all started after Hawking had said yes when he had been asked in an interview whether he liked his mimicry on American TV and whether he would like to be on the show at some point.
Hawking also made several ‘Skype appearances’ on the same show. In each of them, he is shown offering advice to the young scientist Sheldon Cooper while cracking jokes at himself to help the other feel better. In one such sequence, he takes a jibe at his “singing voice” as he sings the happy birthday song to Cooper, who takes a minute to realise that Hawking is actually singing. In another, he talks about the need to rise above awards and jealousy. He jests about how he never won a Nobel Prize, but does not spend time beating himself up over it as he is so popular that he has been cast in best-known TV shows and movies!
The show also has sequences that use just Stephen Hawking’s robotic, Intel voice three times. The wit and style with which Hawking used this computer-generated voice had given it a cool status. And it had become so iconic that TV show producers would use it just in special episodes. Stephen Hawking did voiceovers for two popular American animated TV series — The Simpsons and Futurama.
The Simpsons created an animated Hawking to represent the astrophysicist and Hawking even had a 3-D toy version of the animation on his work desk, it was once reported.
‘Talkin Hawking’ by English Rock Band, Pink Floyd, has a song that uses the voice of the ‘science dude’ to spread anti-war sentiment. “It doesn’t have to be like this. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking,” is a refrain in the song. He even appeared in advertisements that emphasised the importance of communication, water conservation, eyesight, and more.
He has even played a James Bond villain in a Jaguar advertisement. After doing the ad alongside popular British movie villains, he posted on Facebook, “You all know me as Professor Stephen Hawking, the physicist wrestling with the great concepts of time and space. But there is another side to me that you may not know: Stephen Hawking the actor. I have always wanted to be in a movie playing the part of a typical British villain. And now, thanks to Jaguar, my wish has come true.”
Hawking also played himself in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the American cult TV series. A 2014 Hollywood movie, The Theory of Everything, details the personal and professional life of the rare cultural icon that he was.
Geeky spectacles, geeky hairdos, geeky checked shirts and sweater vests, and geeky vocabulary — now, these are things that one can show off, and not something one would have to feel embarrassed about when among peers. A physically handicapped geek became a pop culture icon. Even those who could never wrap their heads around the fundamentals of physics and mathematics followed and admired Hawking for everything he represented. There are people who looked up the meaning, significance, and evolving understanding of black holes only after they first saw Hawking in a hilarious cameo on a TV show or watched a Hollywood movie about his movie-worthy life. This is why they all feel a sense of strange loss at his passing, even though physics or math have never been their cup of tea.
Hawking also had a rather nerdy, rather unique sense of humor. According to the 2010 science documentary, Into the Universe, he once threw a party for time travellers and did not invite people until after the end of the party because, well, they were time travellers! He later said in an interview, “I sat there for a long time, but no one came.”
Even when it came to other media, Hawking did not want his scholarly books, The Universe in a Nutshell and A Brief History of Time, to be limited to lecture rooms and academic journals. Instead, he wanted them to be popular in the “vulgar” sense. In an interview, he once famously said, “I want my books sold on airport bookstalls.” Managing to combine humility with self-embracing humour, he also talked about the unique challenges with his fame. He said, “The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognised. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.”
Hawking was not born with his disability. He was depressed about the deteriorating condition of his health initially. And physics was not his first choice of subject. All these make him very human and very vulnerable. And how he turned all of these on their head is probably the reason why people often wonder if he was an alien, a robot, or the demon!
The scientist had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. At just 21 years of age, he found himself going from normal to increasingly paralysed because of the rare, early onset of the disease. A motor neuron disease, ALS had left Hawking with a maximum of two years to live when he had been first diagnosed with it. However, he managed to live for an extra duration of about five decades!
The ALS Society of Canada defines the disease as one that “gradually paralyses people because the brain is no longer able to communicate with the muscles of the body that we are typically able to move at will. Over time, as the muscles of the body break down, someone living with ALS will lose the ability to walk, talk, eat, swallow, and eventually breathe. ALS is not contagious. There is no cure for ALS and few treatment options for the majority of people living with the disease. Approximately 80 per cent of people with ALS die within two to five years of being diagnosed. There is no one thing that causes ALS. Rather, ALS is recognised as having multiple interacting causes that are likely based on changes in people’s genes, and possibly contribution of environmental factors”.
The condition in itself is rare as there are not more than two affected people in a sample of one lakh people, on an average. So, it was even more unlucky that he got it right in the beginning of his 20s because it typically affects people in the age group of 55-65. Hawking was in his third year at Oxford when he had started feeling unusually clumsy and had tripped over for no clear reason. And it was when he was visiting his family around the same time that his father had taken him to the doctor only to find out that he had ALS. It is believed that when he had been diagnosed with the disease and told what it meant for his life and career for the first time, he had gone into depression. But not only did he get through that and made big discoveries, he also gave mental health advice to people in a lecture, saying, “The message of this lecture is that black holes aren’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought to be... things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up — there’s a way out.”
After sudden bouts of further deterioration in his health in 2009 and 2011, people wondered how he was over 70, chair-bound, and still so brilliant. And all Hawking said to that was, “I have been lucky. I have lived with the prospect of an early death for 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
And it looks like he was still in the process of doing that. Reportedly, there’s a yet-to-be published paper on ‘multiverses’ that he had submitted just weeks before he died. As one of his fans, @RichardCheese, wrote on Twitter: “Tonight, I join the world, no, the universe, no, the multiverses, in drinking a toast to the late, great Stephen Hawking.”
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