Stephen Hawking may have pondered exalted regions — explaining the heavens and exploring black holes — but he also slipped into the public imagination, a mathematical genius whose humor and fierce wit ran through, and inspired, books, films, essays, music and even the strange, satirical constellation that is “The Simpsons.”
Hawking, who died Wednesday of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — from which he had suffered since he was 20 — wasn’t an Everyman. But like Albert Einstein before him, he understood and heightened our fascination with the cosmos and how, if at all, we mattered amid countless galaxies. Sitting in a wheelchair, neck askew and peering from behind thick glasses, he became an impish yet towering pop culture hero; invoking his name or mimicking his electronic voice, was shorthand for brilliance and resolve.
His image and theories were emblazoned on T-shirts and posters. His comic inclinations were often evident, including in a 1993 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when, while playing poker with a pompous Isaac Newton, he scoffed, “Not the apple story again.” But Hawking’s first flash across our psyches came in 1988, when he published “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” which sold more than 10 million copies and broke down the complexities of space and existence for the layperson.
Challenging theologians, he wrote that he was intrigued by “the possibility that space time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.”
Hawking had the rare opportunity of seeing various interpretations of his life. Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the 2004 made-for-TV film “Hawking”; 11 years later, Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal in “The Theory of Everything,” which traced Hawking’s physical decline, tenacious intellect, infectious sense of invention and the technological marvel of his computer-generated voice.
“Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life,” Hawking wrote on his Facebook page after the movie’s release. “Although I'm severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work. I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero gravity flight. One day I hope to go into space.”
Images of Hawking floating in air had already gone viral, when, in 2007 at 65, he boarded a zero-gravity flight test on a specially-fitted Boeing 727. His opinions on more earthbound topics were also frequently sought. When asked by BBC Radio what music he would want if stranded on a desert island, his picks included Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner and “Please Please Me” by the Beatles. His favorite tracks, however, were from Mozart, Puccini and Edith Piaf. He chose crème brulee for his meal.
Hawking’s impact on the wider culture was mystical and mythical. He was a man who understood not only numbers and strands of equations but also our shared inquisitive nature about everything beyond.
He engaged and debated other great minds in his field, but he also hung out with Duran Duran. "I was fortunate enough to meet one of my great idols,” Simon Le Bon tweeted on Wednesday, “somebody who really changed the world for the better, Professor Stephen Hawking. I will never forget meeting him — he was funny and engaging. He helped the entire human race understand the place we live a little better."
The physicist appeared a number of times on “The Simpsons.” In the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” Hawking rolls onto a gazebo where townspeople are bragging about their IQs. He says, “My IQ is 280.” Everyone gasps. Someone quips: “The world’s smartest man.” Hawking smugly responds: “I wanted to see your utopia, but now I see it is more of a Fruitopia. … You have clearly been corrupted by power.” A fight ensues.
He told the British media that “‘The Simpsons’ is the best thing on American television.”
His cameo on “The Big Bang Theory” in 2012, one of many, featured the show’s prodigy Sheldon (Jim Parsons) becoming rapt at the prospect of discussing his paper on Higgs boson particle physics with Hawking. “Too bad it’s wrong,” Hawking tells him. “You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner.” Sheldon collapses with embarrassment. Hawking says, “Great, another fainter.”
Humor mixed with almost incomparable brain power turned Hawking into an accessible curiosity, a man who could toy with the calculus of the cosmos but also resonate in prime time. His cross-over appeal opened possibilities for art and culture to examine universes both personal and those unfolding across light years.
In a 2014 interview with John Oliver for HBO's "Last Week Tonight," Hawking played along with the host's questions but bested him when things got a little out of hand. "You're an idiot," Hawking told Oliver, after the host asked how he could know that a sentient robot wasn't posing as Hawking using his voice.
"Yeah, but who's saying that, Stephen? You or the machine?" Oliver replied.
"Both of us," Hawking shot back, deadpan.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, himself a pop icon, said Hawking’s importance was to make us see and think more deeply about the essence of space-time and existence. "His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake,” Tyson tweeted. “But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure."
Errol Morris’ 1991 documentary on Hawking, “A Brief History of Time,” lays out the physicist’s theories. The film’s most moving moments show Hawking in his wheelchair, chin thrust forward and ever patient. His voice echoes through a computer speaker, sounding robotic and artificial, but it resounds with the wonder and compassion of a man who as an infant survived the bombings of England in World War II to become one of history’s greatest thinkers.
“Did the universe have a beginning and if so what happened before then? Where did the universe come from and where is it going?” he asked, adding later: “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. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
Staff writer Libby Hill contributed to this report.