When any great person dies, his or her legacy grows, and eventually reaches a mythical status. This week, on March 14, Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76 after a long life spent inquiring our universe. His fame is known to everyone, and has even inspired a biopic entitled “The Theory of Everything.” But do we really know him? He is considered one of the best scientists of the 20th century, and was even compared with Einstein, but is this the case?
For sure, he was strong enough to overcome a terrible disease and to continue to work in the field of physics, and he did so for an incredibly long time. But the fact is that he was not the new Einstein, and probably not the greatest physicist of the century. He certainly was a good scientist and a leading figure in the British physics’ panorama. The mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi wrote about an encounter with him in which everyone was interested in him as a person, and not because of any genuine scientific interest in his researches, “at an exhibition there was Higgs, who had just won the Nobel Prize for the boson, but everyone was around Stephen: There was a morbid curiosity for this man who could live in unimaginable conditions.”
Despite these criticisms of his notoriety, he was a great scientific communicator and author of the greatest science books of the last century. His book “A Brief History of Time” was an astounding success of scientific popularization and led many young students to become interested in science. And then there are the coincidences, he was born exactly 300 hundred years after the death of Galileo and died on Einstein’s birthday. All these things further propel his legendary status.
He was a great scientist — not the greatest — but he was an even greater man, and this is the reason we will remember him as extraordinary, a person who overcame the obstacles that life put ahead of him, and continued to do what he liked. In the words of the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli:
“He kept smiling, with the sly smile of an unpunished kiddo, with an implicit and extraordinary message, that even on a wheelchair, without the ability of moving any muscles, without a god and without an eternal life, life can be wonderful and we are all profoundly free to create and live it.”