Stephen Hawking was a global superstar when I met him at Perimeter Institute in 2010. Researchers in the building had known him much longer, as far back as to his time as an outstanding, but publicly unknown, cosmologist. But by the time he was visiting Waterloo, Ontario, Hawking’s star power was almost as bright as the celestial bodies he studied.
It was on his first visit to Perimeter, as a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair, that I was able to ask a question even Hawking couldn’t answer. We were touring an expansion at Perimeter which Hawking had agreed to lend his name to –the only time he ever did– and construction was under way.
Concrete and steel criss-crossed, forming the bones of what would become the Stephen Hawking Centre. It was, however a long, long way from looking like anything recognizable. After the tour, I asked him: “What do you think of the building?” Having only seen steel girders and concrete slabs, he answered honestly: “I don’t know!”
In 2012, when he was back for another research visit, I confessed to him that I regularly regaled folks with the tale of my “astounding” question-asking ability. He laughed a belly laugh such that his whole body shook.
It was enlightening to watch Perimeter researchers interact with Hawking; there was deep respect, certainly, but that was coupled with an amazing business-as-usual approach as, together, they dug into the work and debated those things that needed debate.
As a science communicator, Hawking had few peers. His commitment to promoting science – both its wonder and mystery, and its importance and value – is largely responsible for the amazing brand he gave to science generally and physics specifically. With his book, A Brief History of Time, and his public talks, he brought the great wonders of deep space and theoretical physics into the everyday. His dedication to widening the reach and palatability of science never wavered throughout his long career.
From the time I spent with him during those two visits, I came to see not just the celebrity Hawking, but the scientist and the father. And through it all, I witnessed his humour, patience, and thoughtfulness.
As I reflected on my good fortune to have met Stephen, I reached out to other STAN members for their memories of Hawking, and it seems everyone who met him was left with equally lasting impressions.
Alison Symington – Principal, Strategic Life Science Consultant
One of my favourite Stephen Hawking quotes is: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” I have used this so many times when talking with students and the public. It really speaks to what being a scientist is all about: curiosity. It also speaks to me about the journey of science, about the process of making sense of things, not just the final answer. Not only was he considered at the top of his field by his peers (an incredibly complex field, I might add), he really became one of our only true scientist celebrities, all the while dealing with physical issues that would have caused many of us to question whether we could reach t
he top. This is so important. Just like sports, science needs champions to show the importance of understanding the world around us. Science and society owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stephen Hawking for his inspiration and for his intellect.
Sandra Corbeil - Director, Strategic Partnerships and Networks, Ingenium
As a science communicator I try to spark curiosity. I’ve been inspired by Stephen Hawking and how he humanised science. I’ve witnessed two family members deal with ALS and I know what a cruel disease it is. To continue to dive into his work, to explore the questions that piqued his curiosity despite this, illustrated for me how wondrous the human spirit can be. If he had ‘only’ been this amazing brilliant mind and persevering spirit, he still would have left a deep impression on me and others. However, for me it was his humour that was the proverbial cherry atop the sundae. I remember watching him play cards with Newton, Einstein, and Data on an episode of Star Trek in 1993. That appearance (and the many others on shows like Big Bang Theory) showed the world that scientists are just like them: they might spend their careers diving into complex ideas, but along the way they have fun and don’t always take themselves too seriously.
Julie Bolduc-Duval – Director, Discover the Universe
Reflecting back on the legacy of Stephen Hawking, I can say he had a positive impact on my career. I was 17 when I read A Brief History of Time. At the time, I was becoming very curious about astronomy and big questions about the universe: How did it start? How is it evolving? The book answered some questions but mostly it brought up new questions and made me want to study more to understand better. Reading his book convinced me to study physics and astronomy at the university level. It also showed me that even the most complex concepts can fascinate the public if they are explained well, without the complex mathematical equations. Now that I work in astronomy education and outreach, this is a very powerful lesson!
Tobi Day-Hamilton – Director, Communications and Strategic Initiatives, Institute for Quantum Computing
On September 21, 2012, I realized the true meaning of being star struck. It was the opening of the Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre at the University of Waterloo. The room was filled with excitement. Nearly 2000 people filled the atrium of the new space. Hallways, staircases, and balconies overflowed with people waiting to hear from none other than Professor Stephen Hawking. But the people who were most excited were the hundreds of students crowded outside hoping for a glimpse of the renowned physicist.
Throughout the formal opening ceremonies (during which Hawking looked out at the nanotech building and quipped: “I thought it would be smaller.”), we could hear the students chanting “Hawking. Hawking. Hawking.” At one point during a speech, an exceptionally eager student attempted to climb up the window outside to get a better view. These young people were star struck… by a physicist! Following the ceremony, the doors opened and Hawking appeared to cheers. He rolled his wheelchair amongst the students and their faces lit up. They screamed, they cheered, they applauded. I overheard students saying that they will never forget that moment. With a simple gesture, Professor Hawking left a profound impact on those students. His work inspired generations to be curious about the world around them. His ability to connect with people inspired those who met him.