The Scobee director reflects on the death of the physicist who explored black holes and broke barriers for the disabled.
By Jeff Riley
Students at this college study different subjects as they work toward associate degrees leading to careers in a variety of fields.
But no matter what they are studying, mention Stephen Hawking, and the name is seldom met with looks of unfamiliarity.
In a March 22 interview, Rick Varner, Scobee Education Center director said it’s not often a physicist carries the same iconic stature as Hawking did.
“Whether you’re a student of science or math, or you’ve watched the episode of ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ he was on, you know him.” Varner said.
Stephen Hawking died March 14 at the age of 76.
Hawking was born Jan. 8, 1942, in Oxford, United Kingdom. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oxford and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Cambridge.
Hawking was the recipient of multiple awards including the Albert Einstein Award, Andrew Gemant Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
His most popular scientific works include gravitational singularity theorems of general relativity and the theory that black holes produce radiation. He wrote the popular cosmology book “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.”
This work set the stage for future cosmologists and physicists, Varner said.
For decades, Hawking was paralyzed by a rare form of motor neuron disease, which led to the use of his iconic computer program “Equalizer” allowing him to communicate.
“That device itself was a huge innovation,” Varner said. “It opened the doors all over the world for people with disabilities.”
Varner said the speech device became so synonymous with Hawking that it gave him a unique attribute that could be recognized in social contexts such as television.
“When you say his name, everybody pictures something associated with him,” Varner continued. “Either they hear his voice, picture black holes or remember something else they know about him.”
Varner also said Hawking didn’t shy away from anything, highlighting he was known for being vocal and having strong stances on topics such as religion and politics.
“He wasn’t just a scientist on black holes; he was a deep thinker.” Varner said. “He looked at things and took them into a different context, and that’s what great scientists do.”
Varner said he would like students to remember Hawking as academically courageous, showing concern that students have gone from being inquisitive and exploratory to being fixated with having a high grade-point averages and lacking the drive to retain and push the limits of knowledge.
“Some of the best engineers and scientists are the ones to take a chance and look at something that other people are not looking at,” he continued. “He was not afraid to go out on a limb and make a theory that no one else agreed with.”
Despite Hawking having no direct ties with this city or this college, Varner said he would enjoy featuring a film on black holes at the center one day that includes Hawking and his teachings via archived audio and video recordings.
“I wonder if somebody will have access to those recordings and put them together in a way to have him tell the stories of black holes” Varner said. “To me, that would be amazing.”