Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
My hero in science is not Stephen Hawking. It is my Dad. When I was younger, he told me things that sounded so magical I couldn’t tell them apart from the Narnia series he read to me at night. He told me that the universe was larger than my five-year-old imagination could possibly conceive. He told me that the Earth was just a single planet that revolved around the sun, which was one of around two-hundred billion suns in our solar system which was, coincidentally it seemed to me, called the same thing as my favourite chocolate bar: the Milky Way. And, he told me, the Milky Way was just one of one-hundred billion or more galaxies.
When he told me about his career, from designing new bridges to putting eyes on robots to designing new technology systems to track ships, I was proud. And when he told me about the science behind all this, like mechanics and robotics and astrophysics, I was wowed.
That feeling of childish wonder is the one that Stephen Hawking has inculcated in millions of adults the world over throughout his entire life. We should mourn his death, of course, but more than that we should be grateful for seventy-six years in which one man did for the world what my Dad did for me as a child: breathe into us all a love of the unknown.
Others will write beautiful, and well-deserved, obituaries. This piece, though, is about Stephen Hawking’s legacy. His discoveries covered relativity, quantum mechanics, and black holes. But his wider, lasting contribution is to remind us of the power of scientific discovery. Ironically, for a field so focused on discovering what exists, science’s real power is to allow us to transcend the immediate and see what is far away, or bigger, or lasting.
We have wrongly let science become a subset of academia and commerce. Too often ‘science’ as a word produces connotations with other, boring words, like ‘testing’ or ‘patent.’ It is squashed into the back pages of newspapers and science correspondents are largely limited to writing short columns on the latest cancer drug, which is fine but not enough.
Compare this in ambition with what Hawking says on science: “All my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist.”
I think we should wonder this all the time. I think we should ask children in schools to look not just at charts on a board, but also up at the sky. I think we should promote Britain’s universities, some of which are the best in the world for science, and support them not only in research and development of products which might ‘spin out into productive enterprises’ but also in exploring the frontiers of knowledge.
We should re-energise space exploration. On our own planet, we should journey to the depths of the sea and the core of this planet and out, out into the skies.
We should elevate science in schools, not just because it provides businesses with a better pipeline of future labour, but because the sciences are beautiful. And we should ensure that young women and young ethnic minorities and young poor children all know that the glory of science is in its equity – knowledge and discovery are shared – and they should be empowered to become the next generation of scientists too.
We should elevate our other great scientists whilst they are still around, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Dame Bridget Ogilvie, the ground-breaking immunologist.
Stephen Hawking is gone now. I hope his death kindles amongst us all a love of the scientific unknown as much as his life did. In the meantime, the next time I’m home, I’m going to look at the stars with my Dad.
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff at the British government’s National Infrastructure Commission.