“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

My plan for today was to publish an article about π, to celebrate the International Pi Day (check out my last year’s post). Unfortunately we all woke up to hear very sad news: Stephen Hawking has died.

Only yesterday I and my office mate J. had an interesting conversation about the importance of social skills in academia. We came to the conclusion that while the stereotypical maths or physics professor is, for lack of a better word, a weirdo, such scientists are more likely than not to lose the battle for academic jobs. Research is all about collaboration and nobody wants to have rude or antisocial colleagues.

Stephen Hawking in Zero Gravity NASA: by Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Unless you’re Stephen Hawking, as J. pointed out. Everyone would love to publish a paper with such an outstanding scientist, and by outstanding I don’t mean better in maths/physics than a random person in the street, I mean the one in a billion talent. Such people can be as rude, as antisocial and as weird as they wish, nobody cares.

The thing is, Stephen Hawking wasn’t.

This post isn’t about his achievements in the study of black holes and general relativity, because he was way more than a physicist. For me, an aspiring science communicator, Stephen Hawking was the greatest role model.

The Universe – Hawking’s area of interest

Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” is an example that it’s possible to write even about the most complex scientific theories for non-specialists. What’s his secret? I think it’s the trust in the audience’s interest and abilities. People want to know, it’s just the matter of a good science communicator to help them gain this knowledge.

What other scientsis have appeared in so many TV shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Simpsons”? This requires a great deal of self-distance and a sense of humour. I believe that there’s no better way of sparking scientific interests in I-always-hated-maths-and-sucked-at-physics people than hosting a researcher in their favourite show. I couldn’t find any data on that, but I would imagine that some viewers googled “Stephen Hawking” after the show – and who knows, maybe some of them read a bit about his research?

Of course not mentioning Hawking’s disease would be a negligence. Research is extremely hard, so doing it while struggling with motor neuron disease (or any other adverse circumstances) seems almost unimaginable. However, thanks to his persistence and new technologies, he was able to give lecture after lecture, interview after interview, despite his inability to speak.

People like Stephen Hawking are the reason why I believe in science communication. I encourage you all to learn something new about black holes today, I think this would make Hawking happy. And in case you missed a chance to meet him (like me, even though he came to Imperial), remember that at noon on 28/06/2009 he did/will host a party for future time travellers. So maybe it’s still possible!

Featured image: By Intel Free Press (Stephen Hawking with new computer) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Title: quote by Stephen Hawking
First appeared: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/life-would-be-tragic-if-it-werent-funny/

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