Stephen Hawking 1942 - 2018
As we mark the sad news of the death of renowned physicist and author Stephen Hawking, we celebrate the life and work of a writer whose work inspired countless readers and reflect on the lasting influence of A Brief History of Time, a book which launched a genre and revolutionised science writing.
A world renowned physicist, intellectual titan and a globally recognised luminary, Stephen Hawking, who died today, transformed the face of popular science publishing. Described as ‘a contemporary classic’, ‘a succinct, entertaining and brilliantly lucid account of our relationship with the universe’, his major work, A Brief History of Time, was initially rejected by publishers who failed to see its popular appeal. When it finally reached print in 1988 it became a near-overnight bestseller. Translated into 40 languages and selling 10m copies, it entered the Guinness Book of Records having remained on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unmatched 237 weeks.
The book’s success made Hawking a household name and although he would go on to publish and edit other volumes – including the 1996 edition, The Illustrated Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell – it remains his landmark publishing achievement. The book also opened doors to a career where he became not only the popular face of modern physics but also a feted worldwide celebrity, with the associated attention on his private life.
He made a guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, cropped up in animation in The Simpsons and, in 2014, was the subject of the award-winning biopic The Theory of Everything, based the memoir of his first wife Jane Hawking, Travelling to Infinity. Writing in an introduction to Hawking’s Reith Lectures in 2015 Phillip Ball commented on the contradictions of his notoriety: ‘His story is an inspiring one, but that doesn't mean we should deny him… his humanity’, he wrote. ‘We are strangely fascinated with the idea that a severely disabled person in a wheelchair can be enormously intelligent. We should not be surprised, and the fact that we are says more about us than it does about Stephen Hawking.’
In the immediate aftermath of his death, it is evident just how persuasive his work continues to be. Alongside his other work, he was committed to engaging and inspiring future generations, collaborating with his daughter Lucy to publish a series of books about science for children, beginning with George’s Secret Key to the Universe.
Beyond its undoubted contribution to the field, Hawking’s work continues to be incalculably significant in its influence; firing a generation of today’s scientists from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Yuval Noah Harari and opening the door to the possibility that complex ideas can and should be made interesting and accessible for everybody. Amongst those extolling his influence, the British Cosmologist Lord Martin Rees comments, ‘millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books’ whilst Professor Brian Cox reflects, ‘there are many more scientists because of him.’
Sad to hear about Stephen Hawking. What a remarkable life. His contributions to science will be used as long as there are scientists, and there are many more scientists because of him. He spoke about the value and fragility of human life and civilisation and greatly enhanced both— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) 14 March 2018
His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) 14 March 2018
I once saw Stephen Hawking at an exhibition at the RA, gazing with an intent pleasure at, if I recall, a Canaletto. The entire heaving, bustling room fell into a sort of awestruck silence, leaving a respectful distance of several feet around his chair. It - he - was astonishing— Sarah Perry (@SarahGPerry) 14 March 2018
This morning, the Universe really does feel a little lonelier. I’m saddened to my core to hear that Stephen Hawking is no longer with us – a great man who achieve so much and inspired so many.— Jim Al-Khalili (@jimalkhalili) March 14, 2018
“Silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” Wordsworth was writing of Newton, but he might have been foreseeing the silent face of Newton’s great successor as Lucasian Professor. pic.twitter.com/VZIP0xdQmG— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) 14 March 2018
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