This morning, I woke to the news that Stephen Hawking had died. These days, celebrity deaths are nothing new. We are in a post-cult of personality age, when a surge of media options and advanced marketing abilities created a mass of celebrity. As time has gone by, those people have aged, and it is only natural that they have begun to pass. I note the ones that mattered to me, though over time, those tributes have been reduced to social media one-liners. Maybe I have become desensitized to the death of my influences in the face of their sheer quantity. Today, Hawking felt a bit different.
I’m not a man of science or numbers. The last physics class I took was Physics for the Non-Scientist. In enrolled in Math for Decision-Makers just to get that pesky college math course out of the way. I work with words, sentence structures, aesthetics, and rhetoric. I like science for the stories it tells. I like math once a year to do my taxes. I’ve never even read A Brief History of Time. Yet, I know Stephen Hawking, and as a father, I am thankful for scientists life him.
Growing up, I didn’t want to be a smart kid. It felt un-cool to me in some ways, and I have to admit sandbagging my way through school. I under-achieved my way though high school and most of college. Only when I made a switch to English did I actually start applying myself to the work. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t regret all of those years I lost, because I was afraid to be seen as a geek. Not that it mattered. I’m pretty sure everyone saw through it.
Since then, fueled by the prevalence of intellectual men like Stephen Hawking (and probably the internet), geek culture has flourished. I don’t know if we will ever be “cool,” but we are legion. We have conventions and game nights and have invaded modern pop culture. We’ve discovered the throwaway ending moral lesson of Revenge of the Nerds is true. We all have a bit of geek in us, if we are truly honest about it.
So why is this important to me. Why did I feel the need to write a blog post about a man whose books I have never read, whose theories I only know through second-hand sources, who I know almost solely from television, when some of my personal artistic heroes got only a tweet?
It’s because I am a father. At ten years-old, my son intuitively understands things about math that I will probably never know. It makes sense to him. His brain works on some different wavelength, and quite frankly, his IQ tests intimidated me a bit. I never want him to feel that he has to hide that part of him out of the fear of being seen as uncool.
Don’t get me wrong. Elementary school is still a jungle, and I know it. My son gets picked on, sometimes. Some of classmates don’t understand him, and I don’t think he understands them. But he has found friends like him. They have “Nerd Night,” chess club, gifted projects, and academic competitions. They get to go to a plethora of conventions, comic book stores, and game nights. They have each other, and they get to see others like them in popular culture. That’s a pretty big deal.
I think Stephen Hawking was a big part of that. Academia has a tendency to alienate itself. Literary criticism is as guilty as anyone. We create terminology and use it in a way that makes our research pretty much inaccessible to those who don’t have the codex of passphrases needed to decipher it. Want proof? Pass your buddy some Jacques Derrida and see what he can make of it. Hawking took astro-physics, of all things, and made it accessible. He made it cool, and he has been followed by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who have made the information age a bit more informational. They have had a profound influence upon the rise of geek culture, so to speak.
I hope my son will always feel free to be proud of his intellect. If he does, I hope he some day understand that Stephen Hawking was a part of that.
RIP Dr. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)