Professor Stephen Hawking, who died at his Cambridge home earlier this week, had a remarkable impact not only upon his chosen scientific fields of cosmology and theoretical physics, but also on the worlds of publishing and popular culture.
Elected to the Royal Society in 1974, at the unusually young age of 32, he was appointed to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge five years later, following in the eminent footsteps of Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, and Paul Dirac. His first book, The large scale structure of space-time, co-written with George Ellis and published by Cambridge University Press in 1975, is regarded as a classic in its field.
Wider public recognition came with the publication of A Brief History of Time in 1988 by Bantam Books, now part of Penguin Random House. The surprise bestseller made him one of the world’s best-known scientific figures almost overnight. The book spent more than five years on the Sunday Times bestseller lists and has sold more than ten million copies overall; it has been translated into thirty-five languages. It also spawned plenty of imitators of varying degrees of seriousness, not least Miranda Seymour’s guide to herbs, A Brief History of Thyme.
Other books followed over the next thirty years. A shorter, simpler version of his best-known work was published in 2005 as A Briefer History of Time; it was accompanied not only by similarly serious but accessible scientific books, such as The Universe in a Nutshell and On the Shoulders of Giants, but also a series of children’s books written with his daughter Lucy, and a memoir, My Brief History, which dealt with his early life, his academic career and his on-going struggle with the motor neurone disease which led to his use of a wheelchair and ultimately to his distinctive use of computer software to speak.
Hawking’s influence across popular culture has been remarkable: his voice can be heard in episodes of both the Simpsons and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on several advertisements, and even recordings by Pink Floyd and Monty Python; Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar playing Hawking in the film of his life, The Theory of Everything, in 2015.
Alastair Horne is a PhD student at the British Library and Bath Spa University