The shiny black hardcover jacket winked in the sun, mysterious as a unit of dark matter. I lifted the book from the sale table outside Borders Books & Music and flipped its pages. Elementary particles…wormholes…the uncertainty principle…reading this before I head off to college will make me sound smarter when I get there, right? And so, during a muggy mid-Atlantic summer in the early 2000s, I worked through the mind-expanding chapters of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
It wasn’t an easy read for a teenager. Even with Hawking’s accessible prose, I had to review some parts three times over, constructing the ideas word by word before I could fathom the concept. But I persevered, and each time I grasped an edge of the ideas he discussed, tiny fireworks burst inside my skull, as if my brain were forming new synaptic connections on the spot. Unlike other branches of science I’d studied–biology, geology, paleontology–astrophysics went beyond pure facts to extrapolate incredible possibilities about how the universe might work. One might call it true “science fiction”.
Until that summer, most of my favorite science fictions were entertainment sagas like Star Wars and superheroes, modern-day mythology, not renowned for scientific plausibility. Hawking’s book sparked my realization that the “fiction” in science fiction didn’t have to refer to the science: an entire universe of research and theory offered plausible explanations for many beloved space opera tropes. The more I learned, the more real those stories seemed to me. A Brief History of Time helped shape my approach to writing sci-fi, inspiring me to build my imagined worlds around a solid scientific foundation.
Hawking himself offered another kind of inspiration. Spending 50 years with a debilitating medical condition might incline most of us to see the universe as a bleak vacuum of misfortune. Instead, Hawking chose instead to see its wonder and share it with the world. His sense of humor–often showcased in appearances on sitcoms like Futurama or The Big Bang Theory--helped strip the elitism from advanced scientific theory and put it in a space where laypeople like myself could reach it. He famously threw a party and sent out invitations the following day, hoping recipients would someday discover the ability to time-travel and prove it by returning to attend the bash. Scientists, science fiction writers, and curious minds all across the universe hope to one day crash that party and say thank you to Hawking, who departed this dimension today at the age of 76.
If you’re interested learning more about Hawking’s life and work, Nature journal online features a collection of articles about and by Hawking.