We use filters on filters on filters to enhance our world. Even ‘natural’ has a special filter to apply. But despite all these perfected images, Stephen Hawking still stood out.
When Hawking was a graduate student in 1963, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular wasting illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was given only a few years to survive. Yet he went on to live for another 55 years, becoming one of the most respected and best-known scientists of our time.
I will leave it to you to read up on his biography and life achievements; both are astounding and eclectic, spanning the gap between pure theoretical science and popular scientific culture a mile wide and deep every step of the way.
And I also leave it to you to decide how you articulate his inspiration. At his passing, many were berated for suggesting that Hawking was finally free of the constraints his disease had placed on him. They were called ableists, accused of prejudicial behavior for viewing him as different because of his physical challenges—reducing him, in critics’ view, to the wheelchair and nothing more.
Frankly, he inspired me—not because I felt sorry for him, but because he did, in fact, overcome great obstacles to do great things. How many of us have difficulty in getting past everyday, garden variety, mundane obstacles…often of our own making? Do we sit and bemoan fate and other external forces that we suggest keep us from achieving our goals?
Bottom line: He thought great thoughts and begat big ideas. Be inspired.
The challenge is not to erase the wheelchair and his disease for any reason when discussing his life achievements…neither because you felt sorry, nor because you’d like to pretend that they had nothing to do with who he was. Both sentiments are wrong, and are ableist in their own unique ways.
Lean into the whole man and celebrate Stephen Hawking for who he was.
And here is who he was…at least to me.
Here was a man who pursued answers to what made the universe work. As his mind floated deep in the cosmos, he was also deeply grounded on our planet, imploring us all to rationality of purpose and action in terms of our human interaction. One Hawking quote came from Fortune:
“Since civilization began, aggression has been useful inasmuch as it has definite survival advantages,” the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who recently turned 75, said in an interview with the British newspaper The Times. But, Hawking noted, “technology has advanced at such a pace that this aggression may destroy us all by nuclear or biological war.”
He had a view of a better world (though not without its potential issues). Fortune continued:
“He mused about forming a world government to control this issue and combat threats like artificial intelligence supplanting humans and environmental issues, but then noted that such a governing body could become tyrannical. Nevertheless, Hawking believes humans can prevail and successfully control their aggression.”
Despite it all, he remained optimistic:
“I think the human race will rise to meet these challenges,” he said.”
And it’s that People First philosophy that made him so unique in today’s Everything Else First world. In the New York Times, Hawking was quoted as saying:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
Technology is more than a tool; it’s a double-edged sword. But our fate is not pre-determined destruction. Talking—human interaction—is the antidote to it all.
And of course he applied this thinking to our latest “First,” AI. In 2017, he told CNBC:
“Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it,” Hawking said during the speech.
“Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”
Hawking was not a luddite. He was not proposing moving away from AI development. Rather, he cautioned what I would consider the anti-Digibabble approach. Don’t get swept up; be thoughtful and plan. Learn from human failure and lean into human success.
There is still so much to learn from this extraordinary man and his amazing life. I imagine people will still be studying him like we do Newton and Einstein. However, I thought I’d end with a quote from him that to me sums up his message and his charge to us all:
“We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet. “ – Stephen Hawking
He never looked inward…how inspiring.
What do you think?