Written by Isabelle Dann
So spake Stephen Hawking — not only one of the most brilliant minds of our time with an immeasurable impact, but also a most memorable storyteller. Alongside his accomplishments in theoretical physics, Hawking captured the world’s attention by continually conveying a genuine care for humanity, as reflected partly in his words on the NHS, the institution that saved his life.
Such compassion was also evident among his warnings about the possible dangers posed by AI-powered robots, and how — as humans — it’s up to us to create a fair society through technology: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
What all of this proves is that, among his myriad achievements, Hawking was uniquely powerful at connecting with the public. A natural storyteller, he brought science to the attention of those who might not otherwise have much interest in the subject or for whom it seemed overly convoluted, often with the help of humour.
As just one example, a month after Zayn announced he was leaving One Direction in 2015, Hawking appeared at the Sydney Opera House as a hologram from Cambridge University; he was asked about the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction and consequently breaking millions of teenage hearts across the world. His response? “Finally, a question about something important. My advice to any heartbroken young [teenager] is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics, because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes.”
Although it can often feel like society is increasingly insular these days, Hawking was an emblem of how humanity seldom thrives in isolation, advancing instead as a collective by sharing stories. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to optimally communicate his ideas, Hawking used his platform as a globally renowned physicist to champion issues relating to human rights. Indeed, his legacy as a communicator is found in the mourning of his death that extends far beyond scientists. Hawking reminds us that storytelling is inextricably linked with human culture and progress; that the stories we tell of ourselves reflect and rebuild our changing identities and culture. No doubt he’ll be greatly missed.