Every generation has its heroes, some of whom last a week and others a year. But very few make it through an entire century. Leonardo da Vinci was a hero in his time and for some he will always be a hero, a rebel, and an inventor; an inspiration for generations to come.

Mozart, Galileo, Einstein and Marie Curie all joined him on the list of names that will always be influential. Unfortunately, most members of this hall of fame have one feature in common: they are all dead. They have accomplished worldwide respect and popularity in the times when a letter took weeks to arrive and visiting a foreign country could take months.

Stephen Hawking enjoying zero gravity on board a modified Boeing 727 aircraft. | Photo: NASA (CC by SA 3.0)

What would you do if you were told by doctors that you had only 2 years left to live?

Heroes of today, role models, idols, are rock stars, actors and comedians: they are famous because they look good, make good movies, have a hit single – or are just incredibly rich and share their extravagant everyday lives with millions of people in front of the TV.

They don’t invent anything, they are not exceptional, not unique; they might last a generation if they are lucky, but there are a thousand people just waiting in line to take over their spot and have their moment in the limelight.

And even though popular media is obsessed with beauty, perfection, music, colors and craziness, one of the biggest heroes of the last and the current century is sitting in a wheel chair, incapable of speaking on his own, and still becoming famous for one of the most hated subjects in school.

Hawking becomes a brilliant researcher and moves on to follow Isaac Newton´s footsteps as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, a chair he will hold for 40 years.

Stephen Hawking contracts motor neurone disease when he is 21 years old. A brilliant physics and chemistry student in Oxford just finishing his last year as a doctoral student, Hawking has a bright future ahead of him when the diagnosis hits.

He falls into depression and sees no point in continuing his studies. But as the symptoms of his disease make it harder for him to speak or walk, he makes the daring decision to get engaged to the love of his life, Jane Wilde. This decision changes his life.

It gives “him something to live for”, and he picks himself up. At the point when he has almost totally lost his powers of speech, he challenges fellow scientists, develops existing theories of the Big Bang and the Steady State and finally receives his D.Phil on “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time”, one year after he should have died.

Hawking becomes a brilliant researcher and moves on to follow Isaac Newton´s footsteps as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, a chair he will hold for 40 years. He publishes books that make physics and astronomy accessible and understandable for non-academics and removes the dust from a subject that has been avoided by popular culture for a long time.

Hawking manages to leave the popular science bubble behind, enters popular culture and becomes a face that even science “noobs” recognize on the street.

Maybe it was just good timing. Maybe it was his passion for science fiction and the popularity of shows like Star Trek. But somehow Hawking inspired a generation that was perceived as superficial and fixated with fun and money.

Now this generation is reading his books and watching him on TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory”, 48 years after he should have died.

Maybe Steven Hawking became a hero because he chose love and hope over depression, because he did not let himself down when everything seemed to be lost, because he faces the public with wit and curiosity.

Because he met the eyes of our generation and showed us the fascinating world of physics and what science. Stephen Hawking is not a superhero. What makes him human is what makes him a hero. Sitting in a wheelchair, speaking through a computer, it is the message he sends which makes him an inspiration for us and for future generations: Never give up. Study like Stephen Hawking.

Cover photo: NASA (Wikimedia Commons)

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