By Ian Jones
On March 14, the world lost one of the greatest scientific minds since Albert Einstein.
Professor Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease – which can kill within months of diagnosis – in 1963. He famously did a lot for science, but I think it’s equally important to note his contribution to the disabled community. Busting into the public eye with his layman’s terms book on physics, “A Brief History of Time” in 1988, Hawking wasn’t strictly a disability activist, but he was always visible.
Whether you follow science or not, you surely know his face … or his computer voice.
As well as writing approachable books on science, Hawking also made numerous pop-culture appearances, making memorable cameos in shows like “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” “the Simpsons” and “the Big Bang Theory.”
His visibility surely helped a lot of people accept that people with disabilities could be productive members, or even “thought leaders” of society. In an indirect way, his being so visible in the world almost definitely helped acceptance of disabilities.
On the other hand, a lot of the newspaper write-ups and media sound bites talk about how Hawking was an “inspiration” because he pursued his work “in spite of” his disability. To phrase it like that, though, is simply ableist. It objectifies him and reduces his impact just because of what fate had in store for him. In the grand scheme of things, his disability was irrelevant.
The two are different, not contradictory. He should be remembered for being a highly intelligent physicist, who just happened to have a disability. Period. His wheelchair or even his trademark computerized voice had nothing to do with what he actually accomplished. Did the wheelchair help him predict Hawking radiation, or gravitational waves? Of course not. His mind did that. His synthesized voice didn’t do anything but communicate his ideas.
Should people look up to him, then? Absolutely. In a time when both science and people with disabilities are having difficulty being accepted in American society, I view Hawking as a role model. I can’t pretend to understand the math behind his theories and predictions – believe me, I can’t – but his thoughts should give us all pause.
He felt humanity should proceed carefully with artificial intelligence, otherwise it could end up being a huge problem. “If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans, he said. Who knows, he may be right
Hawking also pushed for humanity to continue to explore space, as the “final frontier” may be key to our species’ survival. Hawking believed that the Earth was reaching the tipping point where global warming would be irreversible, which would eventually lead to the planet being uninhabitable.
Hawking, a huge voice in contemporary society, lived to the age of 76. That’s not bad, considering he was supposed to have died over fifty years ago. It’s possible that we could see another scientist like him in our lifetimes, but I kind of doubt it.