Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking, science communicator

An enormous amount has already been written by both journalists and scientists (here too) on the passing of Stephen Hawking.  Clearly he was an incredibly influential physicist with powerful scientific ideas.  Perhaps more important in the broad scheme of things, he was a gifted communicator who spread a fascination with science to an enormous audience, through his books and through the careful, clever use of his celebrity (as here, here, here, and here).   

While his illness clearly cost him dearly in many ways, I don't think it's too speculative to argue that it was a contributor to his success as a popularizer of science.  Not only was he a clear, expository writer with a gift for conveying a sense of the beauty of some deep ideas, but he was in some ways a larger-than-life heroic character - struck down physically in the prime of life, but able to pursue exotic, foundational ideas through the sheer force of his intellect.   Despite taking on some almost mythic qualities in the eyes of the public, he also conveyed that science is a human endeavor, pursued by complicated, interesting people (willing to do things like place bets on science, or even reconsider their preconceived ideas).

Hawking showed that both science and scientists can be inspiring to a broad audience.  It is rare that top scientists are able to do that, though a combination of their skill as communicators and their personalities.  In physics, besides Hawking the ones that best spring to mind are Feynman (anyone who can win a Nobel and also have their anecdotes described as the Adventures of a Curious Character is worth reading!) and Einstein.   

Sometimes there's a bias that gifted science communicators who care about public outreach are self-aggrandizing publicity hounds and not necessarily serious intellects (not that the two have to be mutually exclusive).  The outpouring of public sympathy on the occasion of Hawking's passing shows how deep an impact he had on so many.  Informing and inspiring people is a great legacy, and hopefully more scientists will be successful on that path thanks to Hawking.   

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