Stephen Hawking Made Geek Culture Cool

How the scientist who traveled the cosmos in his mind became a staple of the pop culture universe.

In the 2014 spectacle “Monty Python (Mostly) Live,” British physicist Brian Cox is blathering about the scientific significance of the troupe’s “Galaxy Song” from “The Meaning of Life” when a figure in a wheelchair suddenly knocks him into the nearby bay.

Cut to Stephen Hawking, merrily rolling away, singing the tune in his distinctive synthesized voice. Among the lyrics: “Pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space – ‘cause there's bugger-all down here on Earth."

Suffice to say that Hawking, whose death Wednesday at age 76 left the planet devoid of perhaps its smartest inhabitant, knew a lot about a lot of things – including that a sense of humor is among the most vital signs of intelligent life. (Perhaps his final joke: dying on Pi Day). 

It’s a trait he showed time and again: The man who traveled the cosmos in his mind turned himself into a staple of the pop culture universe.

Hawking, who altered the perception of black holes, in his own modest way transformed notions of fame, as he became the most eminent citizen-scientist-celebrity since Albert Einstein. The most distinguished wheelchair user since FDR and best-known sufferer of Lou Gehrig’s disease since, well, Lou Gehrig, cannily created a benign cult of personality that helped bring his science to the masses.

Sure, he got much of the job done through his accessible 1988 “A Brief History of Time,” which sold an astronomical 10 million copies. But Hawking reinforced his message by plying the entertainment world in seemingly unlikely ways.

In 1999, he seconded the call for a beer at Moe’s on “The Simpsons” (“That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all day”). On “Futurama,” he stole Frye’s space-time discovery – and, even worse, turned down a pizza  “(“Toss it in the garbage”). He dissed Sheldon’s paper on “The Big Bang Theory” (“Too bad it’s wrong”), and played poker with Newton, Einstein – and Data – on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Like “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, Hawking intuited that scientific innovation could be seeded into mass media. He helped make geek culture cool – crucial in an era of technological upheaval.

While most average folks probably couldn’t expound upon Hawking’s theory of black holes as energy emitters, he beamed a universal intelligence, humor and warmth that transcended his robotic, computer-generated voice. His own story, as immortalized by Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning performance in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” offered an eon’s worth of inspiration.

Stephen Hawking, who soared beyond his physical state, used his mind to expand science and celebrity far past the limits of the imagination.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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