Inspiring the next generation

20 March 2018

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It’s clear that Hawking has had a huge impact, not just on the science community, but across the world. He supported science communication, the motor neurone disease cause, he was a staunch supporter of the NHS, and he used his popularity to raise awareness for political and environmental problems. Many people took to social media this week to express their love and respect for Stephen Hawking. We’ll leave you with some of the stories fellow Naked Scientists listeners across the world have been sharing about one of the greatest scientists of our time...

Chris - We’re very lucky to have assembled some very fine minds here in the studio who have been helping us to reflect on the work and the life of Stephen Hawking. Could I ask you, Martin Rees, for any additional thoughts or your reflections?

Martin - Well, I first met Stephen Hawking in 1964 when he was just diagnosed with his disease and wasn’t expected to live more than two years. I’m an astronomer and used to large numbers, but fewer as large as the odds that I’ve have given then against him surviving another fifty plus years. Even mere survival would have been marvellous but, in fact, he did more than that. He became the most famous scientist in the world. An amazing achievement.

Chris - Gerry Gilmore?

Gerry - Well, Stephen holds the world record for the number of wheelchair bangs to my toes.

Chris - It is true, he did used to drive over people’s feet?

Gerry - Well, yes. It was in Applied Maths' old building. Narrow corridors, and he always came in just as I was finishing a lecture course and always managed to hit my toes! But continuing on the earlier theme, I think it is his inspiration that he has managed to provide beyond subjects that is really the remarkable legacy. I mean he is a global figure.

Chris - Also with us is Andrew Pontzen. What are your thoughts?

Andrew - I think he really encaptured a kind of freedom of thought. And I think it sounds slightly strange to say this, but even amongst theoretical physicists, there’s a danger that people get stuck in a rut and work on one thing for their entire career. Something that Stephen Hawking showed very clearly is that it’s possible to actually jump around and think about many different things and not be afraid of the traditional boundaries, and there are relatively few people who really show that to us.

In fact, very sadly, astronomy lost another individual that, in my mind, is a bit like this - Donald Lynden-Bell. But, to my mind, those two people were the two people that really showed me that actually you can be very adventurous and play around with what’s possible.

Chris - True for you too, Claudia?

Claudia - Absolutely. I think the more I want to do my research, the more I realise how, as I said before, how true to himself he was. You also realise how deeply original his way of thinking was. Now you see in research, you can see some different people in research who say “wow, that’s a little seed of Stephen Hawking”. You can see it just there - it’s amazing how he has really seeded some of his extremely original way of thinking into the community. It’s an incredible legacy.

Chris - And Martin Rees, you can always judge a good scientist by how many big problems they leave behind unsolved for the next generation. True of Stephen Hawking of course?

Martin - Definitely! And what’s amazing is he kept going. Many theoretical scientists lose momentum, but he kept going and, indeed, his last paper written with a collaborator, Thomas Hertog, a Belgian professor who’s a former student, is in press at the moment. So he kept going and this is a paper on the multiverse and it’s very technical. It’s wonderful that he’s got this more than fifty years of sustained contributions despite all the odds.  

Chris - It’s clear that Hawking has had a huge impact, not just on the science community, but across the world. He supported science communication, he supported  the motor neurone disease cause, he was a staunch supporter of the NHS, and he used his popularity to raise awareness for both political and environmental problems.

Georgia - Many people took to social media this week to express their love and respect for Stephen Hawking. We’ll leave you with some of the stories fellow Naked Scientists listeners across the world have been sharing about one of the greatest scientists of our time...

Person 1 - A few months ago, I was hunched behind Stephen Hawking’s chair trying to fix a loose connection that was stopping him speaking. I found it and asked him if he could speak now. “Now” he replied with a cheeky grin. He’ll be greatly missed.

Person 2 - My name is Brendon Owens, and I’m an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. For me, Stephen Hawking was a legendary scientist who seemed larger than life. In my mind I always put him up there with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, which might sound fitting given his genius. But really, what’s running through my mind is when he guest starred on Star Trek at a poker game on the holodeck with Data, Newton, and Einstein. If ever there was someone who encouraged a zest for life and a passion for science, despite the challenges life dealt, it was Professor Stephen Hawking.

Person 3 - When asked about his illness, Hawking once responded: “it’s a waste of time to be angry about my disability, one has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly”. Stephen Hawking’s achievements are testimony to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. His indomitable nature drove him to academic excellence. He was well known for being willful yet his legacy, in so many ways, is unparalleled.

Person 4 - My names Sheena Cruickshank. I’m an immunologist at the University of Manchester. When I was a student, I read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” because I really wanted to broaden my knowledge of science. It really brought the fundamental ideas on physics to life for me and it was an incredible inspiration. My only regret is that I hadn’t read it earlier, as it would have been so useful when I was studying. He was such a great mind and he was a real role model.

Person 5 - I’m a wheelchair user and I studied law at Cambridge in the 90s. I regularly raced Stephen Hawking when I saw him out on the streets. I never told him that’s what I was doing so, unsurprisingly, I won all the time.

I was also mistaken for him once. I’d gone to see one of his talks and arrived at the lecture theatre just in time. I was let in through the wheelchair entrance, not realising this led out onto the stage. The moment I appeared out on the stage, the audience went completely quiet. It was only when I turned to face the front that the penny seemed to drop. A few minutes later, Stephen Hawking himself appeared - an amazing man.

Person 6 - My name is Jessi Parrot. I’m a third year PhD student with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user. I’ve said this many times before that, as a disabled kid who wanted to got to university and wasn’t sure if I could, Stephen Hawking was a shining light of hope. He inspired me not only to do an undergrad degree, but to keep going to PhD level. Thank you, Sir, and R.I.P.

Person 7 - My name is Tasneem Mohammed and I’m currently doing my PhD. And despite that being in genetics, not physics, Professor Stephen Hawking has been beyond an inspiration or a role model to me in my scientific career. He advocated for curiosity and for love for science which are crucial in something as grueling and mentally challenging as a PhD. The world has lost a truly unforgettable genius and a beautiful mind. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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