Perhaps the greatest of modern-day physicists, and certainly the best-known, Stephen Hawking, given only two years to live more than half a century ago, has died at the age of 76. Disability could not define him or restrict his work; the loss of his voice could not silence him. Motor neurone disease could not prevent his groundbreaking work. But his death also presents a problem for much of our free and fearless press.
Hawking was a modern-day icon, but he was also a champion of causes that the establishment found unpalatable. While still able to walk, although needing the aid of two canes, he was at the forefront of protests against the Vietnam War in 1968, marching alongside Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave. Whether all the right-leaning press will be telling their readers that small fact tomorrow morning is unlikely.
Nor will the press, especially the right-leaning part of it, tell that Hawking was an unswerving champion of the NHS, famously responding to Investor’s Business Daily claiming “People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless” by putting them straight on the facts.
He told the Guardian “I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS … I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived”. He joined a legal action against another of Jeremy Hunt’s reorganisations of the service only last December, asserting “I am concerned that accountable care organisations are an attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS”.
Hawking also advocated action to alleviate the effects of climate change, as well as firmly believing that the UK should remain part of the EU. He declared that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “war crime”. He showed solidarity with the Palestinian people and backed the academic boycott of the state of Israel. Moreover, he campaigned for nuclear disarmament - after all, he would have had no problem understanding the effects of nuclear war.
There was also no equivocation when it came to calling out Combover Crybaby Donald Trump: “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it's one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children"
But what will really stick in the craw of the right-wing press is that Stephen Hawking was an unswerving supporter of the Labour Party: after all, it was The Red Team that brought us the NHS. And on top of all that, he backed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, supporting the party and its manifesto in the run-up to last year’s General Election.
Stephen Hawking was a great man in so many ways. We should also remember that he was a great campaigner, although some in the media would rather not go there.
Stephen Hawking 1942-2018. Maybe gone, but never forgotten.