Stephen Hawking’s Birthday, and Why Geniuses Can Be Idiots Like the Rest of Us

Noted physicist Stephen Hawking turns 73 on Thursday. He’s lived with something very similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease for 41 years; the average victim is dead within 14 months. It is a cruel and relentless malady. And yet, here he is, mind still sharp, world famous despite all he’s had to overcome. He’s written a best seller. Someone made a movie about him—and people went to see it. He has a Brainyquotes page. That’s him, above, in a “zero-gravity” plane, courtesy of NASA and a sponsor or three.

If you saw the movie about his life, The Theory of Everything, it’s funny—and this might be the triumph of the film—that at the end I didn’t feel awe at his amazing intelligence, grit, and perseverance, but anger at the way he tosses off his dutiful and mostly-kinda-apparently-faithful wife for his in-home nurse, brought in when said dutiful wife, after three-plus decades of caring for him, puts her hand up for some help. I know movies telescope complicated things into simple scenes, I get that I don’t know the full story, but, my gosh, he looked to be a galaxy-sized cad.

So thanks, Professor Hawking, for reminding me of this: we’re all just people, good at some things and not very good at others. You can be the smartest guy since Sir Isaac Newton and still not get when you should and shouldn’t keep it in your pants.

We’re an unpredictable lot, made of equal parts amazement and need—stars and black holes, which, thanks to scientists like Hawking, we now know are pretty much the same thing, at different times in their lifespan.

Speaking of … if you want something that’s pure amazement, check out this image of the far-away Eagle Nebula, taken by the Hubble Telescope. The Pillars of Creation, as they’re called, are 5 light years top to bottom. The scale, the clarity, the sheer breathtakingness of this image has danced in my imagination all day. Somehow, this photograph exists. Score one for the universe, and one for the collective reach of our vision. We make for a compelling combination.


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