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 e