When I was little, I went to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) day camp. My uncle taught computer science at the local university and he thought it would be a good idea to send his small niecelet to a STEM day camp. It was a good idea except for all the times during the course of the day that I was told that a lady shouldn’t be into STEM. It was the 90s and while Barbie could be a doctor, a small African-American girl with a penchant for Sailor Moon, softball and hair shows couldn’t be an engineer yet.
I never did lose my love of science and even though I went on to study English and Literature, I remained an avid weekend scientist. I took more science courses than I needed to for my degree plan, excelled in Astronomy and Biology; had a great time with amateur paleontology and more. But it was the stars and cosmos that always held my heart. Which leads me to the recent news. Stephen Hawking passed away today. On Einstein’s birthday. On Pi Day. Today, one of the greatest scientific minds to grace us left us for the greater cosmos.
For those unaware, Professor Hawking was an astrophysicist and prolific writer of theories that are now essentially scientific law. He became a public voice for scientific literacy and his appearance made him an easily recognizable figure. From his somewhat comforting robotic voice that replaced his own when his condition seized his vocal cords to his eyes that still seemed so intuitive and intelligent, it’s easy to see why he became such a pop culture icon. Professor Hawking became a bit of a stand-in for “the scientific” genius in the 90s and 2000s as far as visual shorthand goes and in many ways, he replaced Einstein in that way.
Professor Hawking pioneered what we now known about The Big Bang Theory and black holes and space time and more. He revolutionized what it meant to be a genius and encouraged and informed the way we think about space thus paving the way for other scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Michio Kaku. His work will continue to inspire people and I know it has inspired me. And that’s how I came to know Professor Hawking, through other teachers like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. And once you’ve read a Professor Hawking book, you feel like you understand something about the universe that is nearly unimaginable while also feeling remarkably unintelligent for struggling through some of his prose.
Professor Hawking was foremostly an optimist. Because he saw the immense void of the universe, he did his best to be kind to others and optimistic about humanity and where it was going. And his humor and begrudging optimism is how I’ll continue to remember him. There’s a quote he said a while back ago that has always stuck with me, so I’ll share it with you all now.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
Rest in Power, Professor Hawking. Thank you for inspiring me and countless others to look up at the stars with curiosity and wonder.