British icon, Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking weightlessThis must surely be one of the most uplifting (no pun intended) images of recent years: Stephen Hawking free from his wheelchair and free (in his frame of reference at least) from the effects of the force that has so intrigued him over the years: gravity. The apple was a nice touch too: I'm sure he appreciated it.


Now I know it's wrong to think of a person as being defined by their disability, but in Hawking's case, you have to admit, it's very hard not to. Yes, he's a talented physicist who has come up with one or two nifty ideas—I'll never forget first reading about Hawking Radiation in A Brief History of Time and thinking, "Wow! That's pretty obvious! How come nobody else thought of that?"—but can you honestly tell me you would ever have heard of the chap if he hadn't been confined to a wheelchair and speaking through a voice synthesiser? Me neither. Let's face it, he didn't get trundle-on parts on both StarTrek the Next Generation and The Simpsons because of his physics; he got them because of his wheelchair, his voice and his physics. It's the three things combined that make him into a great British icon.

…Which is why I kind of wish they'd taken a photo or two of him weightless while still in the wheelchair.

Yes, I realise the whole point of the exercise was to let Hawking escape his wheelchair for a few precious moments, but can you imagine the impact of a photograph of the iconic Hawking apparently defying gravity in his wheelchair? The juxtaposition of what science can achieve (make a wheelchair-bound man float in the air) and what it cannot yet achieve (make that wheelchair-bound man better) would be incredibly poignant. It would become, along with the iconic photos of Aldrin on the Moon and Einstein sticking out his tongue, one of the great images of science.

And then there's that voice: doesn't Hawking's trademark, computerised, American accent seem a bit incongruous in someone who is supposed to be a British icon? Engineers at Sheffield University have developed a voice synthesiser based on the voice of Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan. Shouldn't they upgrade Hawking and give him a Barnsley accent? Of course not (although it would be one hell of a hack): Hawking's strange, impersonal, slightly robotic accent help make him less of a national icon and more of a world icon.

A bit like Nelson Mandella.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.


  1. I have mixed feelings about this whole episode. Would it actually mean much to Mr Hawking to be weightless? He's still enormously restricted in a physical it just seems a touch gimmicky, even publicity-seeking, to put him through this for world media output.

  2. I agree, it was certainly a publicity stunt for the company in question, but Hawking says it had always been his dream to go into space, and I guess this was the next best thing

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