Stephen Hawking was a credit to comedy and the power of light-hearted human resilience, as much as he was an icon of scientific endeavour.
In case you missed it, the pioneering theoretical physicist changed the way we think about the universe – and our place within it – when he demonstrated how space and time would have begun with the Big Bang and explained black holes.
These musings on all matters seem infinitely incomprehensible to us laymen but Hawking’s real genius was his wonderful way of bringing out-of-this-world theories to the mainstream.
Time and time again, the eminent thinker turned interviews into viral hits with his so-called sick burns.
During Last Week Tonight‘s series, aptly titled People Who Think Good by HBO, Hawking managed to cover all manner of topics with host, John Oliver, including parallel universes, artificial intelligence, and imaginary time.
Yet, after four minutes of debate, he delivered this cutting rejoinder:
When pushed by John Oliver to explain that his theory of infinite universes would mean there would be a universe in which Oliver was smarter than Hawking, the professor replied simply:
And one where you’re funny.
What. A. Burn.
This was Hawking’s great gift: To flip seamlessly between answering the most complex questions humans can confront, to joking about his own experience.
During a guest appearance on The Simpsons, Hawking helped writers poke fun at his own ‘failure to formulate a unified field theory’, moments before his animated avatar unleashed a motorised boxing glove from his mechanised chair to punch Principle Skinner in the face.
Well, Hawking never did like academic authority figures, after all.
In Futurama, Hawking lent his voice to the fictional World of Tomorrow – but not his body, as he willingly appeared characterised as a floating head.
During the season six finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lt. Commander Data can be seen playing poker with ‘hologram’ versions of Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton.
Stephen made real life appearances – seven in total – on The Big Bang Theory. He was beloved by both the viewing audience and cast, who strived to bring academic and so-called geek culture into mainstream reverence.
— The Big Bang Theory (@bigbangtheory) March 14, 2018
After conquering the small screen, his unique outlook was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC film, Hawking (2004). Today the actor credited his ‘wickedly funny sense of humour’.
Later, Hawking was captured by Eddie Redmayne in the 2014 biopic, The Theory of Everything for a global audience and new generation of potential young scientists.
You can watch the trailer for the award-winning film below:
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It documented his life and work, from his diagnosis with a rare form of motor neurone disease at the young age of 22, to his collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity.
Redmayne is one of many who paid tribute to his wit today, saying:
We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet. My love and thoughts are with his extraordinary family.
For anyone who couldn’t quite hack A Brief History of Time, his seminal work on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity published in 1988, or 2010’s The Grand Design, Hawking was always happy to show his working elsewhere.
Meanwhile, he defied medical opinion, despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which left him unable to speak and in need of constant care.
But with a keen mind and his infamous wit, he managed to fight it to the grand old age of 76, when Hawking died peacefully at his home, surrounded by family, in the early hours of Wednesday March 14.
The eminent scientist’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said:
He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’
We will miss him forever.
Hawking devoted his life to academia, yet seemed to understand the lightness of being.
He was able to conquer the hand he was dealt with a no-nonsense attitude to the afterlife, as well as an ability to use his own experience to help and inspire others.
He even took part in the ALS challenge, to raise awareness for the disease:
His charitable work didn’t stop with the ALS Association, which aims to ‘discover treatments and a cure for ALS and to serve, advocate for and empower, people affected by ALS to live their lives to the fullest’.
During a Comic Relief Original, Hawking took part in a spoof sketch where the central punchline was the consequence of his own disability, showing great self-awareness and humour.
You can watch it below:
As well as being a revolutionary in the science world, Hawking has become a role model for many with disabilities.
At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, he said:
There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the Universe, and what can be more special than that there is no boundary? And there should be no boundary to human endeavour.
He understood disability never defines you better than most:
The theoretical physicist, who symbolised the strength of human spirit, also seemed to understand laughter is sometimes the best medicine. He once said: ‘Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny’.
So at this sad time, perhaps its poignant to remember Stephen Hawking as a great mind, as well as a great laugh.