I can tell you with certainty that Stephen Hawking has single handedly gotten more people from my schooling days interested in astronomy than any other figure in Physics. My schooling, however, was half a world away; and in fairness to the other greats, Hawking’s popularity might have been due to his theories having been too new to have become required reading for the classroom.
For myself, I can say with certainty that I have, and still do, feel thoroughly unprepared to grasp much of the work of this scientist. It took me a lot of schooling to understand a little bit about gravity, and quite a bit more to grasp a little bit about relativity; but I understand how Einstein was able to walk into a schoolhouse and destroy a whole planet with the stroke of a pen (or chalk piece, perhaps—if you read the book The Hunt For Vulcan). Yet, with Hawking I feel that he was a man with theories more eerily insidious. This was a man who, unlike Einstein, wants to radiate away massive black holes. He was not satisfied with erasing from his- tory one minor planet that never existed anyway.
I am yet more disconcerted that so much of his work deals with quantum theory—for it is a topic that has still bested me. To thicken that plot, a little, I have actually developed an admiration for his work, because I have come across some of the theories that he has used, in an academic setting, thus making his ideas ‘obvious’after he has stated them. That, perhaps, is a trait of an observation that is brilliant. I certainly cannot think of a more commonly known trait for something that is brilliant.
While I struggle with Hawking’s work in an academic setting, while yet admiring how his books have brought joy to so many science enthusiasts whom I have personally known, from the point of view of ‘knowing,’ I admire Hawking for something else. He fought through something that would surely have ended the career (and even completely the joys of life) of many others, had they been in his situation, the onset and the progression of his disease. If there is one thing that I can admire about Stephen Hawking completely comfortably, it is that he did not allow anything to take him away from his joy of pursuing physics (on the astronomy side). That, to me, shows an indomitable spirit—perhaps even the intellectual equivalent to the physical endurance of the likes of Edmund Hillary, or Ernest Shackleton (I am not saying for sure, but perhaps so).