Listening to the sad news that Stephen Hawking had passed away, somewhat fittingly on Einstein’s birthday, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how much of an impact he has made on the children I work with every day.
The British scientist who was known for his incredible work on black holes, the cosmos and relativity has impacted millions of people across the globe. Probably most well-known for surviving a rare form of motor neurone disease for over 50 years more than doctors predicted, he never let disability stop him. He epitomises the idea of determination and finding your way through when faced with adversity. An inspiring story which is perfect to share with children when they feel they can’t achieve something.
‘One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in.’ From ”Handicapped People and Science,” Science Digest 92, No. 9, September 1984’
Through my work at Explore Learning I’ve seen how Stephen Hawking became a somewhat unlikely role model for children, inspiring them to become more engaged in maths and science. A year ago, when we asked our members which famous mathematicians they could name, of those that could, one of the most commonly named was Stephen Hawking.
In an era where there is a lack of people with STEM skills in the UK, he made STEM seem cool! In the most recent Department for Education Initial Teacher Training census only 79% of teacher training places for maths and 68% in physics were filled, highlighting the fact that the funnel of students from schools and university taking these subjects is not large enough. So, at a time where maths and science are not overly popular, why is it that children and students are so aware of and inspired by him?
He made thing accessible
Whereas adults may find A Brief History of Time a challenging read, George’s Secret Key to the Universe series, which he wrote with his daughter, brings the mysteries of space to life for children.
And for any adults who do want to get their heads around blackholes then check out Stephen Hawking explaining them in 90 seconds here.
He was in touch with popular culture
He appeared on many popular shows like The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Futurama. He often displayed his humours character for example, at a speech at Sydney Opera House, he said to thousands of One Direction fans: “My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics. Because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes.
“It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another different universe. And in that universe Zayn is still in One Direction.”
Children and students could relate to what he was involved with and therefore they could envisage being a scientist themselves.
He embraced technology
Without the advances in technology, that he was involved with and campaigned to be available to others, he would have had a very different life. Without his voice technology he would not have been able to communicate on any level, let alone be a leading scientist and comedy genius.
I remember attending the National Young Mathematicians’ Awards final at Cambridge University, where the children involved were given a tour of the department. The children became so excited as they were shown where Professor Hawking’s office was, and they fell silent as they desperately listened to see if they could hear his distinctive electronic voice. The children were fascinated about how the technology worked and headed back to the competition talking about things they could design to help others.
He was also the first quadriplegic to experience a zero-gravity flight which makes him pretty fearless.
Stephen Hawking’s death is a loss to us all but the legacy he has left our children today – and future generations - is immense. How he made maths and science accessible to all was inspirational and can be summed up by how he simply explains radiation left over from the Big Bang: “The radiation left over from the Big Bang is the same as that in your microwave oven but very much less powerful. It would heat your pizza only to minus 271.3*C - not much good for defrosting the pizza, let alone cooking it.”