Stephen Hawking

I have not written anything about the death of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking because there did not seem much that I could add to the massive coverage it received. But throughout his life, there has been one thing that troubled me about the way he was covered and that was how the media dealt with his motor neurone disease. I could not quite put my finger on what bothered me but Ellis Palmer, who also identifies himself as disabled and is a wheelchair user, explains his own unease with how people like him are seen and portrayed.

Yes, he was an award-winning scientist, but a lot of the coverage after Prof Hawking’s death has created a narrative of an “inspirational” figure who was “crippled” by his condition and “confined to a wheelchair”.

As a disabled person, I’ve found this discourse troubling and somewhat regressive.

Stephen Hawking’s death has reminded me why I’m tired, as a disabled person and a wheelchair user, of being labelled an inspiration just for living my everyday life.

Prof Hawking was an extraordinary scientist and an incredibly intelligent human being.

However, many disabled people, myself included, would take issue with calling him an “inspiration” as this term is often used in popular society to belittle disabled people’s experiences.

I am fine with my friends and family members calling me “inspirational”. However, I get labelled it by random strangers, who hardly know me and just see the wheelchair and my condition (cerebral palsy, which means I use a wheelchair), not the person.

People with disabilities are often framed as either inspirational (say, a Paralympic athlete) or scroungers (people to be cared for or, worse, demonised) by the media and on television screens.

Our everyday experiences are neither heroic nor those of scroungers: it’s just life as we know it.

Society still seeks to create an image of a disabled person’s life as pitiable or a burden on society. This can be incredibly damaging to a disabled person’s mental health and their perception of themselves.

One question that people might have about Hawking is why he never received the Nobel prize. This was not because his work wasn’t exceptionally good. It is because his work was theoretical and the Nobel committee requires that there be a preponderance of evidence that the theories are right before giving a prize to theorists. His work dealt primarily with the properties of black holes and those have not yet been substantiated.

One of Hawking’s most important finds was “Hawkings Radiation,” the theory that black holes are not completely black after all, but emit radiations that ultimately cause them to disappear. The issue is, the technology needed to observe this radiation will take years and cost millions before Hawking’s theory can ever be verified.

Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905 and his general theory of relativity in 1915, both of which were deserving of the prize. But because they had not been extensively tested, he did not get the prize until 1921 and that was for his work on the photoelectric effect that he had also done in 1905. There have been speculations that the Nobel committee was embarrassed at not giving Einstein the prize for so long after he had shot to fame and become a household name and decided to award it to him for the well-established photo-electric effect as a way out of their dilemma. This is not to say that Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect was not deserving. It was. But the scope of that theory was not as extensive as that of his theories of relativity.


  1. cartomancer says

    I think there’s another, related, aspect to the problematic presentation of Stephen Hawking’s disability. Quite often his intelligence and his lack of physical ability are implied to be connected. As if he wouldn’t be such a good physicist if he were fully able-bodied, or as if being so intelligent was somehow a cause of his motor neurone problem. Somehow the fact he had such limited access to the world of the physical translates into the idea that he had increased access to the mental world to make up for it.

    This is a very old cultural idea indeed. Myth has any number of blind seers and lame smiths and disabled prophets of one sort or another. One wonders quite how other sufferers of motor neurone diseases must feel about this when they’re not world class physicists too. Or other physicists of a similar calibre, who get little or none of Hawking’s popular prestige because they don’t fit into this well-worn cultural archetype as well. Often I have seen TV programmes (particularly American ones -- The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, Star Trek etc.) portray him as “the smartest man alive”, because he fits the image of the disembodied mind, the being of pure thought, so well. I’m not sure this is a helpful or a healthy cultural trope for anyone concerned.

  2. Graham Jones says

    I feel the same way. There was a very good radio program “No triumph, no tragedy” ( where “Peter White talks to disabled people who have bucked the odds and achieved outstanding success in a variety of fields”. (This did not include Stephen Hawking.)

    Also agree with cartomancer. Something similar happens with great artists and mental illness. It’s a great disservice, both to great artists who aren’t mentally ill, and to people with mental problems who are not great artists.

  3. jaxkayaker says

    When were the observations testing relativity performed? Later than 1921, I thought.

    I wonder how many people who dismiss theoretical work and theories in general also hold Einstein and Hawking in esteem? I’m thinking of Einstein’s fame before the observations confirming relativity, as well as those who dismiss evolution as “just a theory”.

    p.s. I think “Hawkings radiation” should not have an “s”.

  4. Mano Singham says


    The first test of GTR was done in 1919 and published in 1920 when Arthur Eddington measured the bending of light by the sun. But this was not considered conclusive enough.

  5. Friendly says

    One of my college friends who had congenital difficulties with his legs and walked with an awkward shuffle got tired of being either “crippled” or “inspirational,” too. His 1991 senior essay for the student newsmagazine was titled, “Goodbye, Tiny Tim.”

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