Stephen Hawking always had something to say. He shook up the world of cosmology with more than 150 papers, dozens of which became renowned. He was told he had only a brief time on Earth, but spent half a century captivating audiences in lecture halls, on TV and in the pages of his books. For newspaper editors, almost any utterance of his could make a headline, and he knew it. Hawking warned about the threats of nuclear war, genetically modified viruses, artificial intelligence and marauding aliens. He pronounced on the human condition and once dismissed the role of God in creating the universe. The statement caused a fuss, as the denial of invisible superbeings still can in the 21st century.
It is an unwritten law of nature that when a personality steps into the foreground, their work must take a step back. In Hawking’s case, being the most famous scientist of our time had a mysterious ability to eclipse his actual achievements. At his best Hawking was spectacular: he made intuitive leaps that will keep scientists busy for decades.
It began with Albert Einstein. Where Isaac Newton had thought gravity was an attraction borne by the fields of massive objects, Einstein said mass curved space itself. By his reckoning, the planets of the solar system circled the sun not because of some unseen force, but simply because they followed the curvature of space. The once summarised the theory with characteristic simplicity: “Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”