As a middle-school student in Kashmir, a small Himalayan state riddled with international territorial conflict, I had trouble finding heroes. But I discovered one when I first read “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking book on the study of the universe. That book, and others of his, told me about possibilities that might lie outside the immediate perceivable world. They also made the world more interesting for me, more peculiar and more beautiful.
Although highly respected as a theoretical physicist for discovering the behavior of black holes and investigating the origin of the universe, Hawking leaves behind an equally important legacy of making complicated science understandable to the public. Using insight, humor, and clear language, he made science seem accessible, something anyone could pursue. Hawking, and others like him, made it acceptable, even honorable, to get complicated ideas into the public sphere.
Although I never met Hawking, his writing and his courageous story of living and flourishing with ALS were instrumental in my pursing medicine and public health as a future career. If he could battle a crippling disease and still be the chair of a department once held by Isaac Newton, I thought, what excuse did I have?
Hawking also made me realize why communicating science to the public is such an important endeavor. Done right — as Hawking did — it infuses interest and curiosity in the next generation. It also allows nonscientists, meaning most people, to understand the importance of science in everyday life and to decipher “real news” from “fake news.”
I am keenly interested in health policy. Much of it is driven by research that is initially published in dry, peer-reviewed journal articles that even academics can have trouble wading through. I learned from Hawking that people like me need to translate this kind of work to help educate people about the policy implications of their votes and the other decisions they make as citizens. Down-to-earth communication about science promotes research with higher ethical standards and broader social impact, and is also an effective approach to securing collaborators and funding for innovative research ideas.
Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at age 21, and told he would probably survive for a few years with possibly a very low quality of life. He proved that science-based estimate to be wrong. When asked what kept him going, he famously answered, “My sense of humor … and ability to laugh at life.” He also emphasized how communicating science kept him engaged and active.
His public juxtaposition of physical limitation and boundless curiosity has inspired me over the years, as it has countless others.
Embedded in Hawking’s humor were essential life lessons. When asked how humankind’s potential could be amplified, he once said, “The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”
Hawking was a scientist who inspired millions of children and adults around the world with his books and his true grit. Will there ever be another like him? In his own words, “Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.”
Junaid Nabi, M.D., is a nonprofit executive and medical journalist, as well as a fellow in bioethics at Harvard Medical School and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.