Science's Brightest Star Gone at 76
Stephen Hawking’s death is more than just another celebrity death…
The news of Professor Stephen Hawking’s death came late Tuesday evening with coverage leading into Wednesday morning/afternoon. Many led with his most notable accomplishments: his groundbreaking discoveries as a theoretical physicist, his ability to overcome ALS for 50+ years even though doctors only gave him a couple years to live, even the books he wrote like A Brief History In Time, on the best-seller list for years and being translated into dozens of languages. By all accounts, Stephen Hawking had an impeccable intellect.
While his death alone was not particularly sad or tragic, as him overcoming fatal disease and living to be one of the world’s greatest minds allows him to live on, something about this stuck with me more than other celebrity deaths. While I never am happy about the death of a celebrity, the idea that a public figure has passed, particularly from natural causes after their 50’s is not particularly shocking nor does it really bother me. With Stephen Hawking, the news was somewhat gut-wrenching. I think this is because the world, at least where I live, seems to value intellect less and less. This is, of course, anecdotal, and not particularly measurable so it wouldn’t make sense to try and back this statement up with evidence, but there are some telling signs of how we view intellectualism or even skepticism for that matter.
It should be noted that Stephen Hawking was not a very polite individual. He was known to run over the toes of people he didn’t like with his wheelchair and regularly insulted people both innocently and not so innocently. He once insulted John Oliver as not funny, which may have been a harmless joke or he actually didn’t think he was funny. He also regularly commented on the lack of information the general populous had. In this, we see a sort of animosity towards ignorance, something we used to encourage.
Today we seem to be living in an era where many actively discourage intellectualism and promote ignorance as a symbol of pride. You hear this when the term “college boy” is used to insult someone who got an education and “good ol' boy” is used as a term of endearment for a blue collar worker who hasn’t finished high school. To be clear, neither one of these people are morally better than the other. But there should never be pride in LACK of knowledge.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we see now in the United States. We, as a nation, consistently underfund education, while celebrating figures like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.
This is comically ironic...
We assume that people like Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, or Carl Sagan were all just naturally smart people. While they may have been bright, all modern intellectuals had the education to lead them to the right path. As we defund education and shame intellectualism we are actively suppressing the chances of creating the next Stephen Hawking.
Hawking was also an outspoken atheist who vehemently opposed creationism and other forms of religious fundamentalism, yet another taboo viewpoint from a brilliant mind. After his death, religious zealots tried to slander him by saying because he died he must know that God exists now. This is poor logic and a prime reason the religion needs to exist outside of education. For those who use religion as an absolute guide to the world are tragically misinformed about that world.
By all accounts, Stephen Hawking was pretty liberal in his political and social ideology. He protested the Vietnam war, spoke out passionately against the war in Iraq, called climate change an existential threat to humanity, spoke in favor of socialized medicine, and argued against Israeli apartheid as a proponent of Palestinian Human rights. All results of informed viewpoints from one of the smartest men to walk the earth.
Neil Degrasse Tyson said after the death of Stephen Hawking that there “would be an intellectual void that cannot and would not be filled.” Perhaps the renowned astrophysicist used these words as due respects to a fallen peer. This, to me, seems much more ominous and telling of who we are as a society. We are supposed to become better as a society with each passing generation. While Hawking was truly a brilliant figure, we shouldn’t be losing hope that such a genius could not or would not be replaced. Perhaps Tyson feels that our societies lack of focus on education, an in some cases our utter spite for it, will ensure that we will never have another Stephen Hawking again.