What We Can Learn From Stephen Hawking (Besides the Mysteries of Black Holes)

Stephen Hawking has many things in common with some of the great scientists of our time, his understanding of the intricacies of the universe rivaling that of Albert Einstein.

When Stephen Hawking was born, he came into our world exactly 300 years after Galileo Galilei left.  Two great scientists, connected by their birthdays, separated by three centuries.

Yet, the most remarkable aspect of Stephen Hawking’s contributions to science is his ability to communicate his ideas to others, especially those outside the sciences.

And of course, this is made even more remarkable given what he has personally had to overcome.

Stephen Hawking received his Ph.D. in cosmology from Cambridge University, but almost upon arriving there, he started developing the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  This is a type of neurological disease that causes loss of neuromuscular control and, in many cases, paralysis.

Hawking is now bound to a wheelchair, is almost entirely paralyzed, and can only speak through the aid of a computer-generated voice synthesizer.  Hawking uses his cheek to painstakingly enter words into the communications device, so constructing complete sentences is a long process.

While people who develop the stages of ALS are given about two to five years of life expectancy, Hawking has survived with the disease for well over 40 years.

Yet despite these physical challenges, he achieved great scientific success, being selected the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (the same position held by Issac Newton 300 years earlier) and being named a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious scientific association.

However, Hawking’s most indelible contribution to science would be the publication of his best-selling book A Brief History Of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestsellers list a record-breaking 237 weeks.

In his book, Hawking explains the aspects of cosmology, including black holes, the Big Bang, and superstring theory, to those not skilled in the sciences.  His entire goal for the book was to communicate his knowledge to others who didn’t have his background in physics, and probably would not understand complex mathematics by showing equation after equation after equation.

In fact, as the story goes, Hawking was warned by his editor that for every equation he included in the book, his readership would be cut in half.  For that reason, he only included Einstein’s E=mc2 relationship, and went further to make the subject accessible by including many illustrations throughout the book.

While Stephen Hawking can teach us a great deal about black holes and gravitational singularities, he teaches us much more about something else that makes him a great scientist.  The fact is that information in his mind would be useless to anyone else if he wasn’t able, somehow, to communicate it effectively.

Society progresses when the innovators and the discoverers share with others what their ideas are and what they’ve discovered.

Becoming successful in science and technology takes a desire to communicate what you know to others, so that they can share and build on these discoveries. 

The greatest impact of your work will be when more people know and rely upon your insights.  However, they won’t be able to do that unless they understand what you know.  And for them to know and to understand, you must make the choice to explain what you know and communicate your understanding effectively.

Just imagine the loss to our world had Stephen Hawking not developed his magnificent ability to communicate what he knows.  Certainly many explanations could have been given that his physical ailments have locked away his understanding and prevented the world from accessing his knowledge.

However, he chose to overcome these limitations and developed his extraordinary means of communicating his knowledge and understanding.

And the world, in fact the universe, is a better place for it.

I serve as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've also served in leadership positions with Elanix, Inc. (now Agilent Technologies) and Mentor Graphics. I live in Thousand Oaks, CA, where I've served the public as Chair of our city's Planning Commission and our county's Tobacco Settlement Allocation Committee. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daugther Monroe. Learn more about me »

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.