Editor's Note: In his My Brief History, Stephen Hawking turns his ever-inquisitive gaze inward, reflecting on his own life and the events that, together, turned him into the world's preeminent theoretical physicist. Here, Matt Staggs commends Hawking's psychological strength, his ability to weather the limelight with grace and aplomb, and his untouchable, disciplined drive.
Stephen Hawking has a kind of personal fame that can transcend his significant contributions to science. Millions of people recognize the wheelchair-bound scientist and his speech synthesizer, even if they don’t know his name or anything about theoretical physics. It’s a dubious kind of fame to be sure, and a superficial one when compared to his contributions to human knowledge, but in some ways the way this recognition is expressed is a tribute to his strength and determination, as well as his work as a sort of scientific diplomat.
As a pop culture figure, Hawking has been both lionized and the subject of ruthless satire -- sometimes a little bit of both. In an episode of Seth MacFarlane’s always controversial animated series "Family Guy" ("Brian Goes Back to College," season four, episode 15) Hawking is portrayed (humorously) as an abusive, ill-tempered professor. Humorist Stephen Colbert has a recurring bit titled "Stephen Hawking is Such an A-Hole," in which he satirically rails against an egomaniacal Hawking. Other Hawking references are decidedly laudatory, such as the a spaceship that bears his name in Dan Simmons’s science fiction novel series, The Hyperion Cantos. Sometimes Hawking himself is in on the joke. An episode of the cartoon series "Futurama" starred Hawking as one of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers, in charge of protecting the space-time continuum.
To be sure, it can be considered in poor taste to poke fun at someone for their disabilities, but it can also be argued that the reason some entertainers (and by extension, a part of their audience) feel comfortable making Hawking the subject of humor is that he is considered strong enough to take it. Hawking isn't an egomaniacal sadist, or in the words of Colbert, an "a-hole," and he’s not a weakling. They don’t see him as someone who needs pity. He’s considered the equal -- both in recognizability and merit -- of any other public figure, and is thus subject to, or maybe worthy of, the same level of parody.
Consider this quote from Hawking, taken from a Science Digest article titled Handicapped People and Science: "If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well."
Hawking has never made an issue of his health condition, has never asked for anyone’s pity or praise, and has never let it get in the way of his professional or personal life. As a result, he enjoys the adoration of millions, the respect of his colleagues, and a fulfilling personal life, to boot. He has published numerous books, expanded the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and ensured his place in history.
People of all sorts love Hawking for his good humor, relentless intellect and personal strength, and none of this is "in spite of" his physical limitations. His character and wit have helped people to look past their presumptions of what a "handicapped" person should be, and instead see a human being as worthy of respect -- and yes, the occasional ribbing -- as any other.