Wit and Wisdom

Stephen Hawking Was a Genius Who Could Laugh at Himself

‘Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny,’ said the great physicist, who died today at age 76.

In the biography Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, it’s claimed the great physicist loved to run over the toes of people he didn’t like—including Prince Charles. Author Kitty Ferguson wrote: “One of Hawking’s regrets in life was not having an opportunity to run over Margaret Thatcher’s toes.”

When asked about the claim, Hawking told Ferguson: “A malicious rumour. I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.”

When history looks back on Stephen Hawking, it will remember his as one of the greatest minds of modern times. Like Isaac Newton is remembered for discovering gravity, and Albert Einstein for the theory of relativity, school kids will be taught that Hawking was the physicist who discovered more about black holes than anyone else.

But as news of Hawking’s death spread across the globe, the reaction was much more warm and loving than you’d expect for an academic. Stories that were shared of Hawking’s sense of fun, his love of comedy, and ability to laugh at himself painted a picture of a man who was much more than his landmark scientific achievements.

Many who would never think of picking up a science book will mourn Hawking’s death because of memories they have of him starring in Futurama, The Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, and, most famously, as a four-time character in The Simpsons, on which he once threatened to steal Homer’s theory that the universe was shaped like a donut.

“Farewell to Stephen Hawking, the most intelligent guest star in the brief history of The Simpsons,” said the show’s executive producer, Matt Selman, as news broke of the scientist’s death at age 76. Actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, said of the physicist: “We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”

Even away from the big and small screen, Hawking displayed his self-deprecating and quirky sense of humor. He famously threw a party for time-travelers in 2009 and sat disappointed at the bash as nobody turned up. He said of the event later: “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible. I gave a party for time-travelers, but I didn’t send out the invitations until after the party. I sat there a long time, but no one came.”

A reporter for the BBC tweeted about his run-in with the scientist, saying: “[The] producer left [Hawking] in room setting up for interview. [He] pulled out [a] lead for light and Hawkins slumped forward in chair like disconnected something vital. Producer runs for help, returns to room to find Hawking chuckling.”

Once quizzed on the cosmological effect of Zayn Malik leaving One Direction and breaking hearts of millions of girls across the world, Hawking replied: “Finally, a question about something important. My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside our own universe lies a different universe, and in that universe Zayn is still in One Direction.”

Hawking also used humor to deal with his decades-long affliction of motor neuron disease and the disabilities that it gave him. A cameo video appearance in Monty Python’s 2014 live show also shows him running down rival physicist Brian Cox in his wheelchair and driving away singing Python’s Galaxy Song.

Hawking also used his sharp humor to win arguments and make serious points. Asked if he believed he was the most intelligent man in the world, he responded: “I would never claim this. People who boast about their IQ are losers.” On what it was like to make a significant scientific achievement, he said: “I wouldn’t compare it to sex, but it lasts longer.”

While Hawking is destined to be remembered for his wisdom and discoveries, but those that knew him and saw him make fun of himself on TV or in public appearances will also remember him for his ability to laugh at himself through adversity and become an accessible and loved figure rather than a gifted but distant academic.

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Hawking once said: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” Amid the tragedy of his death, it’s safe to assume he’d be delighted that people are remembering him for his humor as well as his groundbreaking achievements.