Reader's Digest - - Contents - MARC PEYSER

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.”

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.

“If you are look­ing for trou­ble,” joked Hawk­ing on The Simp­sons,

“you found it!”

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