"Wait," I said, reading the paragraph again. "Private Eye? Penthouse? Physicists read this stuff? Some of the smartest men in the world read this stuff?"
Thus was my introduction to Stephen Hawking. Sure, I had seen A Brief History of Time on the bookshelf--my grandmother had given it to me as a Christmas present, after all--but I hadn't read it yet, being only eleven or twelve years old. But now my interest was piqued. I'd already scoured Sagan's Cosmos, and was reading books far above my grade level as a casual pastime, looking for...more. Not necessarily answers--I didn't know the questions yet. But More. And so in order to find out what kind of a physicist would place a bet with another physicist (Kip Thorne, who wrote Black Holes and Time Warps, which would come out in 1994--an excellent book) about the existence of black holes, where the prizes were awful magazines, I buckled down and read it. And my life was changed.
Cosmos was inspiring. I'd watched the series on PBS with my mom when I was a veritable baby, and I knew then that I wanted to do something in the sciences, that there was nothing more interesting in the world. I'd read the book as soon as I could understand words (and that was pretty young, since I taught myself to read at 2). But A Brief History of Time was life-changing for me. For the first time, I really understood some of these topics, the math and science behind some of the things Sagan introduced me to. In Hawking's own words, “physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here. I wanted to fathom the depths of the Universe.” This was almost word for word why I was interested in the sciences as well. I instantly accepted Hawking into my world of heroes (later to be joined by Feynman and Nash and Turing and others).
Hawking gave me my first glimpse of the size of the universe. When I was laying in my backyard one night, staring up at the stars, and suddenly had my epiphany about the vastness of space, the IMPOSSIBLE size of it, and yet suddenly understanding that it WAS possible, it was Hawking's words and math that made it clear to me. When studying relativistic physics, when facing Einstein's work head on, it was Hawking's work, at a glance, that helped make sense of it. And when the time came for me to do one of the biggest projects and presentations of my academic career in modern physics, I did indeed base my work on Hawking's. Hawking literally made a scientist out of just a kid looking at the stars and daydreaming. Without his work, I'm not sure I would have gone as far as I did. If it happened to me, I'm sure it happened to others as well. And that's also what inspired me to use my knowledge of physics and astronomy and try to make it accessible to others. Sometimes something as simple as an article or a book can open the door to someone's future.
But it wasn't just science Hawking gave me lessons about. Hawking faced some steep odds and opposition in his life. He had an early-onset form of ALS, which confined him to a wheelchair for most of his life and made spoken communication impossible without his infamous speech-generating device. While he certainly had his down times in life, he didn't let his challenges conquer him, and he outlived many projections on his lifespan. I thought of him when I faced my own challenges, especially inspired by his cocky attitude. I might have been the only young woman in the lab at times, but I never felt alone, because knowing I could face any adversity, I didn't let the small matter of my gender get in the way. When I learned I had ADHD, and that's why some things were more challenging to me than for others, I didn't let that stop me. When I was pushed, I pushed back, because compared to the challenges others in the physics world faced, mine were nothing.
Stephen Hawking was one of the people who opened a door to me, a door to time and space. He made my world infinitely bigger, and I know he did the same for many other people. He wasn't perfect--no one is, he had his personal issues and demons to battle as do we all--but his mind was an amazing one, showing us all that physics can be fun, and even funny at times.
Not only was Hawking a science nerd, but he was also a geek, a fan, one of us. He loved science fiction, he enjoyed thinking outward beyond the possibilities of the here and now. When he heard of MC Hawking, he didn't react negatively, and in fact said he was flattered, comparing the rapper's work to a modern version on the British satire show, Spitting Image.
Hawking didn't just strive to inspire older people to study science. A few years ago he collaborated with his daughter Lucy to write a series of science adventure novels for middle grade readers, which my son loved. They've been compared to a younger style "Doctor Who."
Is the world a bit dimmer of a place without Stephen Hawking? Perhaps it is, but at the same time, it is all the brighter for the minds and careers Hawking has inspired, people who would not be interested in science had it not been for him, people who had the doors to the universe opened to them as a result of his work. For some of us, his memory will never fade, for all we have to do is look up at the stars to be reminded of him.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.