7 Times Stephen Hawking Challenged Us To Think Bigger

Keep reaching for the stars.

76-year-old physicist and best-selling author Steven Hawking died Wednesday at his Cambridge, England home, but not before leaving behind a legacy of discovery and far-reaching theories that have challenged even the world's brightest scientific intellects to consider things more deeply and explore the impossible. In short: he was a science rockstar.


While some may not have been as familiar with Hawking's achievements before the 2014 release of the Oscar-nominated film about his life, The Theory of Everything, which scored actor Eddie Redmayne the Academy Award for best actor, his passion for imagination and discovery will live on through space and time.   

In fact, the only thing Dr. Hawking said he could never quite figure out was none other than the opposite sex.

"Women," he told New Scientistmagazine. "They are a complete mystery."

Here are 7 ways Stephen Hawking challenged us to think bigger:

1. He was a genius before geniuses were cool.

Hawking was considered a genius for bringing together several different but equally fundamental fields of physical theory: gravitation, cosmology, quantum theory, thermodynamics, and information technology. But he was also quirky, clever and liked to point out that his birthday, Jan. 8, 1942, was 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo, who had begun the study of gravity.

Math and science were a breeze to him. In fact, he once said, "equations are just the boring part of mathematics." He'd stop at nothing to understand and uncover new ideas about things he found interesting, like his favorite subject, cosmology, that dealt with the life-affirming question he said was, "Where did the universe come from?"

He also thought of himself as the Black Hole Master because of his years of research on the topic, and once explained, "They're named black holes because they are related to human fears of being destroyed or gobbled up. I don't have fears of being thrown into them. I understand them. I feel in a sense that I am their master."

2. He made major discoveries.

Hawking suggested that "virtual particles," or pairs of particles – one negative, one positive – fizzing spontaneously into existence, could become real if they're created right next to a black hole. Basically, he disproved his previous findings about black holes being unable to decrease in size and instead discovered that black holes radiates energy as they gradually get smaller. That energy is aptly named Hawking radiation.

"The most important thing about Hawking radiation is that it shows that the black hole is not cut off from the rest of the universe," he once explained.

The discovery of Hawking radiation has opened up an even deeper dialogue about our universe and has led to speculations that we live in a holographic universe, in which three-dimensional space is some kind of illusion. Still, black holes won't work as a portal to alternate universes.

 "I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans," Hawking said.

3. As well as out-of-this-world predictions.

Hawking saw far beyond the Planet Earth with certainty. After all, he warned, time on earth was not infinite. In 2004, he addressed an audience in Hong Kong saying, "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

On another occasion, he said, "I don't think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars."

4. He threw a party for time travelers.

The physicist hosted a welcome reception for friends from different time periods, but no one showed up. The "Welcome Reception for Future Time Travelers" included an invitation, and while Hawking was hopeful a guest would show, he was still optimistic that someday, in some space and time, there would be.

"Maybe, someday, someone in the future will find the invitation and use the wormhole time machine to come back to my party proving that time travel will one day be possible," he said in a clip from his documentary miniseries Into the Universe.

5. And lived life to the fullest.

When Hawking was first diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, doctors gave the then-21-year-old three years to live. He lived a further 55.

Hawking once recalled how he felt following his diagnosis: "When you are faced with the possibility of an early death it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are a lot of things you want to do."

In an effort to prep for a future trip to space with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company's SpaceShipTwo, Hawking boarded a zero-gravity flight, zipping around in a Boeing 727 that produced periods of weightlessness. He was just shy of his 65th birthday at the time.

"I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit," he once said.

6. He equated understanding the universe to "knowing the mind of God."

In 1988, Hawking's best-selling book about black holes and the origin and destiny of the universe,A Brief History of Time, was released, selling more than 10 million copies, and is said to have arguably secured his status as a global celebrity. The book also inspired an Errol Morris documentary by the same name, which put science in the feature film spotlight, a rarity at the time since it was one of the least popular subjects in all show business.    

"… if we do discover a complete theory" of the universe, "it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists," Hawking wrote. "If we find the answer to that it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God."

7. And his defining characteristic was unbounded curiosity.

"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet," he is quoted as saying. "Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up."


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