Stephen Hawking: visionary scientist and social justice campaigner

Stephen Hawking was a vehement critic of capitalism’s excesses.

Visionary physicist Stephen Hawking, a leading explorer of the cosmos and champion of progressive causes, died early on March 14 at the age of 76.

Hawking was known for his research into properties of black holes, gravity and Einstein’s theory of relativity. His best-selling 1988 book A Brief History of Time was credited with sparking the general public’s interest in cosmology.

“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, told the New York Times.

The scientist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21, and was told by doctors that he would die within three years. Instead, he embarked on an influential career, eventually using a wheelchair when he lost his mobility and a speech synthesiser to communicate.

Along with his discovery of phenomena such as Hawking radiation, the theory of energy flowing into and out of a black hole until it fades to nothing, Hawking was a fierce opponent of the war conservatives waged on science in recent years.

He condemned the so-called “debate” over climate crisis, insisting on the need for urgent action. “We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible,” he said last year.

By pulling out of the Paris climate accords and refusing to take action, Hawking said US President Donald Trump’s actions “could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid”.

Hawking also opposed the US-led wars on Vietnam and Iraq, as well as for universal health care.

The physicist also supported a boycott of Israel by academics, citing the nation's treatment of Palestinians, as part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

He was a vehement critic of capitalism’s excesses, warning that economic inequality would skyrocket as more jobs become automated and wealth continues to be transferred to the already-wealthy.

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” he said in 2015 in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.

“So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

[Abridged from Common Dreams.]

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