The ground-breaking physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, and likewise a champion of the rights and potential of those with disabilities everywhere, created his own path to an appearance on TNG by appearing as himself in a Data holoprogram of famed scientists of history in “Descent.” Stricken at age 20 by a progressive motor neurone disease that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Hawking nonetheless completed his research and degree work in theoretical physics and cosmology—then shot to fame with his groundbreaking 1988 bestseller of lay-readable cosmology and quantum science, A Brief History of Time, and several follow-ups.
A longtime Trek fan, the physicist planted the idea for his scene after visiting Paramount to shoot a promotional film for his book, shot on the Enterprise-D’s engineering set and warp-core. While on a tour of the other TNG sets, he asked to be taken from his wheelchair — a rare request — for a sit in the captain’s chair and, as relayed through host Leonard “Spock” Nimoy, wondered if there was any way he could appear on the show! The search was on for a “profound” scene for him when executive producer Michael Piller suggested the innocent premise of a poker game.
Hawking, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for 30 years, was born in 1942 at Oxford to escape the "blitz" in wartime London, then moved back and grew up there, enjoying horseback riding and coxing a rowing team until his ALS began rapid onset in college. Early diagnoses predicted only 2 or 3 years to live, and he became completely paralyzed by 2004, requiring a now-trademark voice synthesizer that he has never updated since its original model.
Still, at his 65th birthday in 2007, Hawking announced plans to fly weightless on a Virgin Atlantic high-altitude plane three months later—and did so, the first for a quadraplegic: The weightless event allowed his paralyzed body to move for the first time in 40 years. He remains at Cambridge as director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, and counts the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 among many medals and awards collected from around the world.
Hawking died in 2018 at the age of 76.