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Stephen Hawking as saint and celebrity

  • 15 March 2018


The rush to pay tribute to cosmological colossus Stephen Hawking had an air of reflex about it. People paid their respects, but many were not entirely sure why. He'd be missed, but in what way?

Basic, bare bones knowledge of his scientific contribution has been cited: his popular text A Brief History of Time, quantum gravity, the study of black holes, singularity and the origins of the universe. Such is the way of all celebrity, even those rare intellectual ones who manage to burst the celluloid barrier of mass marketing. They become symbols in their time, ciphers of an age.

For scientists, it is the Einstein effect, whose theories can be popularised in a few characters; whose face and gray-white hair can be moulded as prudently saintly.

Hawking became a spectacle of the body triumphant, soldiering on against Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He could be seen moving with ageless routine purpose on King's Parade in Cambridge; his carer like an imperial consort, hovering over him.

The ceremony would continue to dinners at Gonville & Caius, were he was a fellow for five decades and noted for his 'uproarious' wheelchair antics in Hall. Being assisted over his meals was itself an instance of ceremony. Students treated a glance from him as being touched by greatness.

That said, college residents would babble less about lofty theory than matters of the flesh: he had, after all, divorced twice. The naughty fellow married his nurse, they would say. Then came the one-upmanship, a sort of competitive game of Hawking spotting: SH spotted in pub; SH almost run over by incautious cyclist; SH driving over undergraduate's foot.

On the intellectual soapbox, Hawking became pundit extraordinaire. He specialised as a purveyor of warnings: be wary of replying to signals from another planet; artificial intelligence 'could be the worst event in the history of civilisation'; fear exponential population growth.


"The Hawking outpouring is a reminder that human societies seek saints. The incurable paradox of sainthood is that individuals who observe it rarely know much of the figure."


A participant in comedy, a winner of medals; few other physicists came close to Hawking in the stakes of mass appeal. Could it be that it was precisely this ensemble of disease, chair, synthesised voice, sagacious views — like Einstein with moustache and wild hair — that made him appealing?

Consider the view of Cambridge history student, Maddy Ducharme. 'His work is a