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There’s no rule that says a guy who spends his days formulating equations to explain black holes, unified field theory, and other mind-bending mysteries of the universe can’t also be a cutup. Still, it was always surprising when physicist Stephen Hawking showed up on TV and cracked a joke.
Hawking was perhaps the most famous scientist in the world when he died earlier this year at age 76. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, sold ten million copies and made him an unlikely superstar even to people who sweated through high school science.
But humor was always a big part of Hawking’s effort to bring physics to the masses. In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, for instance, he recounts how, in 1277, the Catholic Church declared scientific laws such as gravity to be heretical, since they seemed to diminish God’s omnipotence. “Interestingly,” the text adds puckishly, “Pope John [XXI] was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him.”
Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking’s coauthor on The Grand Design, points out that physics and humor are more closely related than you’d expect. “Humor often relies on looking at things in different ways or making odd or unexpected associations,” says Mlodinow, who has just published a new book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change. “In physics, the same thing happens.”
In a sense, the element of the unexpected was Hawking’s secret humor weapon. It wasn’t only the absurdity of an egghead scientist shouting, “If you are looking for trouble, you found it!” before punching a guy, which an animated Hawking did on The Simpsons. It was also that Hawking kept smiling even though he spent more than 50 years in a wheelchair.
He was only 21 when he was diagnosed with the degenerative motor neuron disease ALS. For most people, the condition would have been a calamity. But Hawking rolled over adversity as if it were just a pebble under his wheelchair. “Life would be tragic,” he once said, “if it weren’t funny.” Find out the real reason why Hawking outlived his ALS diagnosis by 55 years.
And so he cracked jokes. There was the time when talk show host John Oliver asked him about parallel universes. “Does that mean there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Oliver quipped. Hawking’s dry reply (made all the funnier by the affectless timbre of his computer-generated voice): “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny.”
Hawking liked physical humor too. He reportedly enjoyed wheeling his chair over the feet of people who annoyed him, including Prince Charles. “A malicious rumor,” Hawking said. “I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.”
“He loved adventure and fun,” says Mlodinow, who once took Hawking on a punt-boat trip down the river Cam in Cambridge, England, despite the obvious danger of the boat capsizing. “You know about when he went on the vomit comet? It’s a plane that flies in a parabolic path so you are weightless, like you are in space. A lot of people barf, but he loved that sort of thing.” And he was 65 at the time.
Hawking’s greatest hit, humor-wise, was probably the cocktail party he threw in 2009. It was a “welcome reception for future time travelers,” he said, so naturally, he sent out the invitations the day after the party. No one showed up—yet. “Maybe one day someone living in the future will find the information and use a wormhole time machine to come back to my party, proving that time travel will one day be possible,” Hawking explained. And if that happens, don’t be surprised if Hawking is there too. After all, he never missed a chance to have fun.
Next, read these Stephen Hawking quotes that will lead you to the meaning of life.