In 1963 doctors gave Stephen Hawking two years to live. Little did they know that he would defy all odds, surviving for fifty-five years instead. Most people would have been content to be the medical miracle that proved the doctors wrong, but Stephen Hawking was not most people. He decided to use his time, however long or short, wisely.
Professor Hawking was a brilliant scientist, building on the work of Albert Einstein to send cosmological research in entirely new directions. He re-shaped the way we think about our very own universe, an exceptional feat. Alongside this he also helped to make the incredibly complex research accessible to the general public by making public appearances to give lectures, help produce documentaries, and wrote the book “A Brief History of Time” which does an excellent job of laying out what his research was about and what it all means. Later in his career he also co-authored a series of children’s books where all the events in the stories were theoretically possible, helping to spark interest in the minds of the next generation of scientists. While not a physicist myself, I still feel that his contributions to the scientific community are immense and unforgettable.
For any human to achieve academically what Professor Hawking did would be worthy of celebration, but to do this in the face of an incurable and devastating illness that gradually stripped away his ability to communicate his ideas to others is equally as mind-blowing as any of his research. In doing so he helped prove to the entirety of Western civilisation that disability does not mean that someone is unable to make valuable contributions to society. He helped to normalise disability in the eyes of the public and to raise awareness for the equal treatment of the disabled. By making frequent cameo appearances in TV shows and adverts, often blatantly making fun of his own predicament, he made the rest of the world comfortable with the notion of disability. He humanised us all.
Usually the death of a celebrity might warrant a tweet or a short Facebook post, but Stephen Hawking deserves a whole lot more. As both a scientist and someone disabled, I want to recognise him as nothing short of an icon who changed the world. May he rest in peace.