Hawking, the challenger!
I made this as a sort of op-ed. It was how I felt at the time, feelings shared by my friends and those I knew.
I woke up Wednesday and when I got to college I saw the news that Prof. Hawking had passed away. It kinda hit me hard, because I think it is no exageration to say he was an inspiration to many young physicists and future physicists.
So this week I decided to give a piece of the influence Hawking had on me and on those who were close to me. Not as a mourning, but mostly as praise, and celebration for the life he lived.
As most on Earth, I heard about him in the usual way, through some news about his opinions on current events on the world at the time. At the time, I was likely a kid, probably going to start middle school or something close to that. And I just saw this guy on television talking about something. The ammount of attention people were giving to him, made me think that perhaps he was an important person. But that was about it. I liked space when I was young and I even had the luxury of having an amateur telescope (it was not good though), so I would constantly be fascinated with everything new I would learn about planets, stars and galaxies, and I would devour the pop-science books who had these contents (sometimes literally, I mean, the pages looked appetizing).
In one of these books I happened to come across Hawking again, probably about black holes. As a pre-teen, you can imagine I would love the ideas of black holes, and knowing someone who worked on them, and was able to explain them, made him into someone I definitely admired. At this time, I had just started memorizing famous scientists names, mostly to look inteligent, because that’s how things were in the late 00’s. So I already knew of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. And I would look for quotes of them on the internet, and try to make those my personal philosophy (later I found out most of those quotes were misquoted or fake, so it came and bit me in the ass). What would fascinate me most about Hawking was how he was still able to do physics while on a wheel chair. I was the kind of person to believe that just because I would have a bad grade on some subject I wasn’t able to do it, and yet you have someone who if he didn’t try, no one would judge him, you could even say he was justified to not do physics anymore, and yet he persisted, even when losing his voice. I begged my mother for a copy of “A brief history of time” (One of the perks of being a kid, you can still get some things from your parents if you beg properly) and I read, and re-read, and re-re-read the book.
I started being fascinated for this new science I wasn’t aware of. Physics. I wanted to be a doctor prior to that, so it was kind of a change on paradigm. Where I grew up, no one really knew about physicists, we knew they were people who studied stuff and were super smart (we believed that) and knew all the mysteries of the universe. However, the closest to physicists we had there were engineers. Which was not bad, but an engineer is not necessarily a physicist. They may know about the physics required to their field, but they are more of an applied physicist than the ones I truly admired. I didn’t really admire many engineers at the time, maybe Archimedes. And besides those, we only have physics teachers from high schools, which may be good. But still they didn’t give me the feeling I would feel with my “idols”. To me, I felt like being a physicist was nothing but a dream, that someone from a small African country shouldn’t really think about. But again, I would remember that I wasn’t on a wheelchair, so fuck what I thought back then.
After passing through high school, I already knew english and also, how to use Wikipedia, so I would spend my time there reading biographies and things that I would really understand. Those formulas would end up giving me headaches, which only cemented my idea that physicists were above regular people. But I knew enough about maths to start to notice a particular beauty in the physical laws and formulas I would see in high school. Luckily, I always loved maths, and the unusual apathy that most had for math was unknown to me (Really, one day I should do a post about this crazy idea people have about math), probably because there were some great pop-science books about mathematics I would read. And also because I had great teachers who kept me motivated to learn. So I was trained in trying to see things abstractly, or through just mathematical expressions. But I still was not able to understand the expressions of the scientists of old.
I got to college. My first year was fairly tough. I had to suddenly adjust my schedule from high-school to university, and believe me, college will not be easy (specially if you spend more time in bars than in your bedroom studying, but you should still relax at least once a week). But I still remembered those same ones who inspired to go through this journey. One of the things I thank the most while being here in college, was not only seeing actual physicists who dealt with the various fields of physics and were active on research (many of them inspired me to keep going) but I also got to meet various other genious of before who made key contributions in physics and mathematics, like Maxwell, Boltzmann, Dirac, Schrodinger, Feynmann, Euler, Gauss, Laplace and Ramanujan. And also some contemporary who still live, like Englert, t’Hooft, Gell-Mann and Witten. My personal favourite when it comes to explaining physics is Feynmann, mostly for the way he exposed physics in such a way that both physicists and layman could understand. I aspire to someday explain people as well as he did.
But still Hawking was someone I deeply admired. Maybe it was because he had such a deep presence in my life as a child compared to the others. I mean, he was still alive, and I could daydream of a day we would meet, and I could ask him all sort of questions, while sadly I couldn’t do it with Feynmann (I still can with t’Hooft and Englert, at least that). Now I already knew a bit about physics, a tiny bit that could give me a basic notion of what he was trying to say on his equations. Yeah, now, I had the luxury to know a bit about what he actually did for physics, besides bringing it to the eyes of the public. And I was hoping that in the next years, I could muster enough knowledge to finally be able to talk with him. And this fatality happened.
At the beginning I was sad, but later that sadness was replaced with a feeling of admiration. While only having two years to live, he outlived all expectations, reaching the new century and 55 years beyond what he should. And he was able to bring a field like physics to the public. If someone was able to do for maths what he did for physics, we wouldn’t have to worry about kids not liking math. Now it is true that many other physicists did relevant contributions, some more than Hawking, (many of the names I have above), but Hawking brought physics to the spotlight, and thanks to him, and others who like him, saw the usefulness in bringing physics to the public, people like me, could become physicists. Now roughly 10 years after I first heard about him, I am going to graduate in an Applied Physics and Engineering course (it’s a double major, so I get to have the best of both worlds and I know, this isn’t theoretical nor mathematical physics, which were his expertise but those are PhD objectives). But still through his work on physics, and through the exposition of this wonderful field to the masses, he will be remembered.
We may have never met, but the impact he had on me was not trivial. So, instead of farewell, I will say, for all others who like me, got to know the field of physics through him, thank you, Hawking.