At the age of 76, legendary physicist Stephen Hawking has passed away. We remember the science icon by looking back at a handful of his all-time best quotes.
After having been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21 and given two years live, Hawking went on to live for another 55 years, a feat almost as remarkable as his contributions to science.
But as well as his phenomenal scientific work, Hawking was also well known for his turns of phrase. Over the years he commented on everything from the state of technological progress, to society’s response to it, and the challenges of living with a degenerative disease.
In celebration of his life, we’ve collected together a selection of our favourite quotes from the man himself.
But before we dive in, it’s important to remember just how amazing it was that the man was as eloquent as he was, considering for most of his life his ALS forced him to rely on a speech generating device. Initially he controlled this using a handheld clicking device, but as his condition worsened he eventually had to use small twitches in his cheek to write the words that his machine would say out loud.
This painstaking process meant that Hawking could only communicate at a maximum of six words a minute, according to The Independent.
AI could be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.” – The Guardian
While most of us are still getting used to the idea of having a basic form of artificial intelligence through smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, Hawking was always more preoccupied with the bigger picture.
Hawking never suggested that the creation of artificial intelligence was inevitably going to spell doom for humanity, but that its creation would come with inevitable risks as a result of its enormous potential power.
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.” – Reddit AMA
Similar to his thoughts on AI, Hawking was on the fence about whether automation would prove to be a good or a bad thing for society overall.
Handled well, he believed it could allow people to live more cheaply and easily. When you consider that his condition meant that for much of his life he relied upon carers to help him in his daily life, it’s not hard to imagine that Hawking likely imagined that people life himself could see a lot of benefit from autonomous machines.
But handled badly, Hawking thought that machines could work to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. These people could end up owning machines capable of doing the work of thousands, depriving people of jobs, and keeping the proceeds from their labour in the hands of a small group of the super-rich.
“If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up.” – New Scientist
On first impressions, the above quotation seems figurative — a reassuring assurance from Hawking that no matter how hard life can be, all it takes is for you to persevere to eventually succeed.
But no, as it turns out Hawking was literally talking about an extensive theory of his that posited that matter never quite enters a Black Hole, but instead continues to exist on its boundary, on the event horizon.
His reasoning is, to be clear, enormously complicated, and involves tying together theories about holograms, super translations and the photons emitted by a black hole.
We can’t even begin to understand his theory, so let’s just say he was being figurative.
Yeah, black holes = never give up. Good stuff.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” – The Guardian
Part spending your life’s work answering questions on the scale of entire solar systems is that you quickly become aware of your own insignificance.
But what we like about this quote is how it marries our insignificance with the progress that we’ve made as a species.
Yes, in the grand scheme of things we might just be a bunch of intelligent monkeys on a single planet, but compared to the intelligent monkeys we were just a couple of thousand years ago we’re doing OK.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” – Washington Post
What’s remarkable about Stephen Hawking is that despite the numerous challenges he faced during his life, he maintained an exceptionally sharp sense of humour. There are countless stories about his wit, but the one that we’re most fond of is how his viva (an oral exam) from Oxford played out.
By his own admission, Hawking didn’t work hard enough towards his undergraduate degree. Knowing that he was viewed as something of a difficult student, he promised to leave Oxford to study at Cambridge if the examiners awarded him a First. They obliged, and Hawking spent much of the rest of his life at Cambridge, where he eventually became a fellow at Gonville and Caius College.
If you have any favourite quotes from Stephen Hawking, share them with us @TrustedReviews.