Stephen Hawking was the rare scientist with enough bona fide star power to influence popular culture and help “geekery enter mass media,” say science broadcasters who followed his career.
The work and stature of the late physicist, who reportedly sold more than 10 million copies of his cosmology book “A Brief History of Time,” led to his being drawn into “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” recruited for a guest role on “Big Bang Theory,” and immortalized on the big screen by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his leading role in “The Theory of Everything.”
Hawking, who was diagnosed at 21 with the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, died Wednesday at age 76.
“The greatest minds of our time are people who can start to think in that really, really large-scale or even a really micro-scale way and be able to (translate) that in a simple and effective way to a large audience and really sort of enchant them,” says Ziya Tong, a co-host and producer of Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” science show.
“The thing about science is it starts to really gravitate to certain people when you can deliver it in a bite-sized, fun kind of way. That’s what Stephen Hawking was able to do, to kind of take something that’s really out there … and still get people excited and remind them about why these ideas are so important.”
Jay Ingram, a science author and former host of “Daily Planet” and CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks,” recalls the impact “A Brief History of Time,” first published in 1988, had in popular culture and how owning it became a status symbol.
“You’d see it on people’s coffee tables,” Ingram says.
“There is a bit of an irony there because while I think it had a huge impact on bringing Hawking and cosmology to a general audience, it also has been joked that this is the bestselling book of all time that most people didn’t read.”
Ingram admitted that he too struggled with some concepts in the book even though its language “was quite straightforward.”
“The concepts were so unearthly that in a way it was sort of hard to grasp. Like he’d talk about imaginary numbers — well those are tools that physicists use all the time, but for people who aren’t physicists, like me, I really don’t have much of a clue what an imaginary number is,” Ingram says.
“But he’d just use it a sentence and go on to talk about how they’re used and you’d think, ‘Wow, this is such easy reading — but am I really understanding it?”’
News of Hawking’s death led to an outpouring of tributes online from famous admirers who said they were personally affected by his work.
“Genius is so fine and rare. Goodbye Professor Hawking. You inspired and taught us all,” tweeted retired astronaut Chris Hadfield
“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane wrote “when a brilliant scientific mind like Stephen Hawking also happens to be a great popularizer of science, it’s a gift to the world,” while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted “his life and work taught us to dream big, to think nothing was impossible, and to forever change how we perceive our world.”
Mitchell Moffit, one half of the duo behind the popular YouTube science channel AsapSCIENCE, said he was inspired by Hawking’s enduring work despite the debilitating symptoms of ALS.
“The nature of Stephen Hawking’s disease always made him feel somehow invincible or like a superhero to me as a kid, which makes his passing harder in some ways. But superheroes never really die,” Moffit tweeted.
While astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a pop culture figure as well for bringing science to the masses, Ingram says Hawking stands out because it was his research and work that defined him.
“Tyson is famous but he’s famous for doing a TV show, much more famous than any actual scientific work he’s done,” Ingram says.
“With Hawking, you can’t deny the impact of the book, you can’t deny the impact of the man. There were so many things about him that set him apart from most scientists.
“Name a scientist in another field of science who’s had the same kind of impact — it’s really difficult.”
THE CANADIAN PRESS