It may seem an obtuse way to measure the impact of one of history’s greatest scientific minds, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Professor Stephen Hawking was truly loved by the world. Not only for the brilliance of his work, but for his dry sense of humour and ever-curious spirit; we’re so indebted to this man who could approach the endless gulf of the universe and find joy, not terror.
That sense of appreciation is so evident when we look to the way creative voices have treated Hawking over the years. His prominence, with Hawking himself making a wide array of TV appearances over his career, brought significance not only to the scientific community, but helped to give the disabled community wider visibility in media and popular culture.
He seemed to leap at the chance at a cameo appearance: he played his own hologram in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, seen playing poker alongside Einstein and Newton. He was the only guest star on Star Trek ever to play himself; when taking a tour of the set, he paused by the Warp core and noted: “I’m working on that.”
He appeared as himself in several episodes of Futurama; in “Anthology of Interest I”, he showed up as a member of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers, guardians of the space-time continuum. He even reviewed Sheldon’s (Jim Parsons) paper on the Higgs boson in The Big Bang Theory, noting: “You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner.”
However, no TV cameo will be quite as treasured as his time on The Simpsons, most notably “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”. The episode sees Lisa invited into Springfield’s local Mensa chapter, only for the group to grow power hungry and take control of the town, attempting to impose the rule of the smartest.
It’s Hawking who saves the day, becoming one of Lisa’s many mentors with the line: “I don’t know what is a bigger disappointment, my failure to formulate a unified field theory… or you.” He’s also intrigued by Homer’s theory of a “donut-shaped universe”, and confesses he may steal it – a reference to actual theories that the universe may be toroidal in shape.
He went on to make three more appearances on the show – one he called “the best thing on American television”. Hawking himself become enough of a popular Simpsons character that he received his very own action figure, complete with the boxing glove that erupts out of his chair to reprimand Homer, when he imitates Hawking in an attempt to get him to pay a bar tab.
Of course, a man of such widely renowned brilliance is bound to be the subject of a biopic or two. In this case, a biopic which propelled its star onto the stage on Oscars night, as Eddie Redmayne accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor for portraying Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.
Though he spent six months poring over every piece of interview footage he could find, Redmayne only met Hawking five days before filming was set to commence.
The meeting so racked him with nerves, that he confessed he started reeling off facts about Hawking's own life, even pointing out they were both Capricorns. Hawking responded simply: "I’m an astronomer, not an astrologer.”
Marsh, however, added that Hawking so impressed by the film and Redmayne’s performance that he not only gave his blessing, but offered to lend his own voice.
“The voice you hear in the latter part of the story is in fact Stephen’s actual electronic voice as he uses it,” he told Deadline.
This was not the first time Hawking’s life had been explored on screen, however, with Benedict Cumberbatch taking the lead in Hawking, which explored his early years as a postgraduate student at Cambridge University.
Of course, Hawking was also happy to lend his expertise to non-fiction television, including a three-part miniseries entitled Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, which aired on the Discovery Channel.
Famed documentarian Errol Morris was even inspired to make 1991’s A Brief History of Time, as a way to meld the scientist’s life and work into one extraordinary portrait, with a score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass.
Indeed, the legacy we’re left with is one of a mind so expansive, that just to witness its workings seemed like a boundless source of inspiration. He’s been deeply interlaced into the workings of popular culture: referenced again and again, as he will be in the future – even Pink Floyd welcomed him into their psychedelic kingdom, sampling his voice on their songs “Keep Talking” and “Talkin’ Hawkin”.
Hawking died aged 76, with his family releasing a statement in the early hours of Wednesday morning confirming he’d passed away in his home in Cambridge. It included words from his children – Lucy, Robert, and Tim – which read: “He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”
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