Stephen Hawking in popular culture: from The Simpsons to Star Trek and Pink Floyd
The scientist’s fame led to appearances on sitcoms, films about his life and music being written about him
‘This Oscar,” declared Eddie Redmayne, delirious, “belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS. It belongs to one exceptional family.”
The family was the Hawkings. Redmayne had just been named best actor at the 2014 Academy Awards and, while co-ownership of Redmayne’s statuette might come low down on Stephen Hawking’s list of honours, the success of The Theory of Everything marked absolute proof that the physicist’s story had long transcended the scientific academy. It would be one for the cultural ages, too.
Redmayne had beaten Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game to the Oscar.
A fact intriguing not just for the quirk of the two being nominated for playing 20th century British geniuses – but because Cumberbatch had also played the physicist in Hawking, Peter Moffat’s 2004 feature length BBC drama.
Moffat’s film took in Hawking’s life as a brilliant, ill-disciplined student through to his early work on steady-state theory at Cambridge and the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis of his disease. Cumberbatch met Hawking twice but didn’t stay in touch, telling The Guardian: “Obviously, I would love to have an email relationship with him, but, then, what would those conversations consist of? I am an actor and he’s a nuclear physicist.”
With a story dramatic enough to be taken up by two actors now on the A-list, a mass audience now knows versions of Hawking’s life. But the scientist’s portrayals of himself may well be just as fondly remembered.
Mention the Big Bang to some and their first thought might not be the cosmological model which Stephen Hawking spent so much of his career bringing to public understanding. Instead it’s probably Chuck Lorre’s wildly popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
A good job, then that Hawking appeared on Lorre’s show in 2012 (he later appeared just as a voice) – reviewing Jim Parsons’s character Sheldon’s paper on the Higgs boson: “You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner.”
It wasn’t the first time the scientist had appeared in a long-running American comedy.
The Simpsons debuted only a year after Hawking’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Hawking made his way to Springfield for the episode ‘They Saved Lisa’s Brain’.
In it, the middle Simpson child’s Mensa group had taken control of the town and needed to be reprimanded for their smart-Alec utopia: “I don’t know what is a bigger disappointment, my failure to formulate a unified field theory … or you.” Hawking later suggests that Homer’s “theory of a doughnut shaped universe is intriguing” – a nod to the theory that the universe is toroidal.
The appearance helped earn Hawking a certain cult status – he even has his own official plastic figurine, a copy of which he kept in his office.
Though his fame in yellow isn’t something he dwelled upon – in a 2005 Guardian interview, all he had to say about it was: “The Simpsons appearances were great fun. But I don’t take them too seriously. I think The Simpsons have treated my disability responsibly.”
He made three more visits to Springfield to appear on the show he described as “the best thing on American television”.
Hawking also appeared several times in Matt Groening’s other animated hit, Futurama, and appeared as his own hologram in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing poker with Einstein and Newton.
“The uncertainty principle will not help you now, Stephen,” warns Einstein during a hand.
But it’s not just in comedies and biopics that Hawking casts a shadow.
His work – and extraordinary life – was also made into documentary by no less a filmmaker than Errol Morris.
Morris’s 1991 film A Brief History of Time was based on scientists explaining the concepts addressed in the book and Hawking’s life, with a score by Philip Glass.
Film critic Roger Ebert called it a “rebuke” to the millions of people who had started reading A Brief History of Time and not made their way through it.
Hawking wasn’t above hawking things either.
His 2013 Go Compare adverts prompted wonder at how an insurance comparison site could convince him to sell out, but as early as 1994 the physicist appeared in a BT advert proclaiming: “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
That ad moved David Gilmour so much that he sampled Hawking’s words for the track Keep Talking on Pink Floyd’s album “Division Bell”.
Hawking did not pick Pink Floyd as one of his Desert Island Discs, though.
Instead in 1992 he plumped for act one of Wagner’s The Valkyrie, the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”, works by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Édith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
But his taste for classical music may have been reflected more in German composer Rolf Riehm’s 2011 piece Hawking, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2011.
It was inspired by a photo of Hawking sitting in front of a starry night sky. Riehm told The Los Angeles Times that the scientist served as a “metaphor for the ceaseless extension of limits”.
Morris collaborator Philip Glass also included a version of Hawking in his 1992 opera The Voyage.
Despite the genius of his work, there is no doubt that Hawking’s disability and distinctive physical appearance led to both his fame as a scientist and part of the reason he became a go-to for artists as diverse as Groening and Riehm. But the frequency with which Hawking appeared on shows like The Simpsons proved he was happy to be on the inside laughing out.
As a result, his profile, like a black hole, was never going to get smaller.