As long as his ideas continue to spread and inspire people, Hawking’s mind will live on.
|The cover art of Dr. Stephen Hawking’s bestseller, A Brief History of Time
Image Credit: Bantam Publishing
Each person, in the course of their lifetime, helps determine the distant future of the world we live in. Long after we’re gone, every one of our choices and actions echo throughout the system, amplified by time and chaos. It happens with something as simple as spooking a squirrel on your way out the door in the morning, changing where it buries its next acorn and, in turn, where a new tree grows. In a lot of ways, life is a game of trying to steer that chaos, to shape and confine the future and bring it in line with what we’d like to see. We do that with our actions, our presence in the physical world—but any animal can step on a butterfly. What makes us unique as humans is our capacity to communicate: to change the world with our ideas.
In that sense, Stephen Hawking was a paragon of humanity. Wheelchair-bound by a neurodegenerative disorder for much of his adult life, he transcended his physical disability with the help of technology, and brought wonder, understanding, and grand-scale curiosity to millions around the world. He shared his gifts and disseminated his ideas, putting wrinkles in people’s brains—young and old alike. My family had a copy of The Universe in a Nutshell on our bookshelf growing up, and I remember eagerly paging through it with my mom, struck by the images, aspiring to wrap my mind around the ideas they conveyed. Would I be writing these words, if that book hadn’t been there? Would I have seen physics as something that I could do? There’s no way of knowing, but I know that my life would be less rich without his thoughts and words—the pieces of his consciousness that my mind now contains. Corny as it sounds, he lives on in a very real way in the minds of everyone who learned from him.
So in honor of Dr. Hawking’s passing, PhysicsCentral’s parent organization—the American Physical Society—has un-paywalled 55 of his papers, published in the journals Physical Review Letters and Physical Review D. If you want to honor his memory, the truest way to do it is to learn his ideas, and to let them inspire new ideas in you.
Most of the newly released papers are high-level astrophysics, but the amazing thing about living in the 21st century is that, if you’re willing to stop and search every time you encounter a term you don’t understand, it’s possible for someone with enough dedication to bring themselves up to speed in just about any field using the resources that are free online.
Not everyone has that kind of time to dedicate though, and a large part of Hawking’s genius was his ability to communicate difficult ideas in a way that the average person can understand; if you’re not comfortable spending an afternoon turning links purple on Wikipedia in trying to unravel one of the more complex papers linked above, you can likely pick up his books aimed at the public—A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell—at your local library, or snag them online. Other great science writers have also taken a crack at breaking down the highlights of Hawking’s work and his social impact; one of my favorites so far is by Prof. Chris Adami, of Michigan State University.