We haven't figured out time travel yet, so when Star Trek: The Next Generation's producers put together Data's fantasy poker game, two of the legendary scientists at the table were represented by actors. But as Starfleet's favorite android sat down to bluff hands and joke about Mercury's perihelion, the fella with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein wasn't pretending to be Stephen Hawking. He was... Stephen Hawking.
Professor Hawking, who turns 70 this week, is a man so fascinating that if he came up in fiction one might think it were far-fetched. Here is one of the most advanced minds in the world, and yet he is trapped inside a broken body. Communicating through mechanical means (a speech system that could be updated, but is retained for idiosyncratic reasons), Professor Hawking's brilliant insights into Cosmology ring with a robotic quality. His voice is without question the most recognizable of any scientist living today – though it isn't actually his voice. (If this is turning into a “Measure of a Man”-type of semantic conversation, all the better.)
Hawking's good humor – he always slips in jokes in any interview I've seen – comes through during his quick holodeck scene in the episode “Descent.” “Not the apple story again. . .” he sighs to Newton and “wrong again!” he boasts to Einstein when the longtime New Jersey resident (I love pointing that out) tells him the Uncertainty Principle is no help to him now.
Hawking's influence on Star Trek was more than this quick scene. If you've got sharp ears you'll hear a reference to a shuttlecraft called the Hawking on more than one occasion. In the alternate future that plays out in the series finale “All Good Things. . .” you'll note that Data holds the Lucasian Chair of mathematics at Cambridge University. This is the same position Hawking held from 1979 to 2009. (Of note, Isaac Newton, Hawking and Data's holographic poker-mate, held the position from 1669 to 1702.)
Hawking wasn't always confined to a wheelchair. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) during his last year at Oxford. Most people die within 10 years of diagnosis, but Hawking has lived with the disease for nearly 50 years. Among his many achievements in the field of theoretical physics are pronouncements and discoveries about black holes that, frankly, I'm not smart enough to really understand. I do know that Hawking has his own kind of radiation named after him. “Hawking radiation” is a special radiation that is found, supposedly, near the event horizon of a black hole. If you don't think that's real I suggest you go to the event horizon of a black hole and check.
Hawking also subscribes to an interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the “many world theories,” which states, basically, that the Worf-based TNG episode “Parallels” is true. Somewhere out there – and not just theoretical, but really out there – there exists a version of yourself that had the guts to ask Amanda Stein to the prom. So don't feel so bad.
Another great honor: Hawking, like most of the cast members of TOS, is among those who has appeared as themselves on the show Futurama. So make that one the first video you check on YouTube if you want to look him up. (The panel discussion with Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan will still be there, too.) Also, if the book version of A Brief History of Time is a little too hard to get through, a very watchable documentary version from visionary director Errol Morris came out in 1992. The film is more of a biography of Hawking than a deep dive into theoretical physics, but it touches upon the concepts written about in the book. Then there was a highly regarded 2004 BBC film called Hawking that focuses on the professor's early years. Playing the lead? None other than Benedict Cumberbatch: Star Trek Into Darkness' mysterious John Harrison. If that isn't a cosmic coincidence, I don't know what is. Oh, and let's not forget about Hawking's guest appearance on the Trek-loving The Big Bang Theory.
If you could play cards with any three people on the holodeck, would Professor Hawking be one of them? Also, be honest – did you ever make it through to the end of A Brief History of Time? Let me know the answers to both (and multiple higher-dimensional permutations of those answers) in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.