Science needs more rock stars like Hawking

They say that those who live in the shadow of death are those who live most. Those who have opportunity taken from them are those who see the greater wonder in the things that others just take for granted. And that is so true. It is only when you are faced with losing something that you start to miss it the most. At times like that, it hard to focus on the positive, to reach out and see a light when there is but a dim torch in the distance.

In the last week, I have spoken to a friend who is seriously ill, and we spoke about the journey that lies ahead for him. We tried to get beyond the terror and the regret, the practicalities, and the outcome. A generally positive chap, now he is aiming to look past the illness, to embrace it like an odd companion, like a stranger who sits beside you on an interminable bus journey.

He is anticipating greeting the obstacles that will come his way. Like many of us, he feels he has forgotten how to live life in the present. Too much of what occupies our mind comprises our regrets about the past; our fears about the future. The present becomes a mere middleman in our constant engagement with time.

I thought of him again yesterday morning when I heard of the sad passing of Stephen Hawking — a man who has given so much in a life extended beyond what it might have been.

Hawking showed us that there is much more to be achieved by focusing on the here and now, rather than the now and again. Although he was perhaps a very special case, he illustrated the contribution that everyone can make if they are given the opportunity to do so, and if we adopt the correct mindset.

However, he plays a bigger role in our lives because of the part he played in making science and physics sexy — and this is a trend that we have to encourage if we are to enable mankind to make the progressions we have over time itself.

Hawking became part of pop culture because he was willing to laugh at himself, to introduce humour and craic into the previously stuffy world of science. And while this is a juxtaposition that many people might think impossible, it is a trait that is needed if we are to attract a new breed of scientists.

We live in a city which is half rock and roll, half academia. It is a place that has benefited from the marriage of academic and craic; of music and molecules; of gigs and genes. Our role as a place that values its culture attracts people to come here and one would hope that the experience of being here impacts on the quality and breadth of the research.

Investments like that announced in Washington last night are to be welcomed in this regard. Boston Scientific and CURAM are showing the way in sustaining a culture of research and advancement in Galway. Align this to the strong start-up culture in the west, and you see how we go about creating a sustainable economy in the region.

The legacy of Hawking can be that we relish scientific endeavour and create a culture of curiosity that can be met by our third level institutions. We do this by encouraging the CoderDojos, by generating an interest in STEM subjects among our children by showing the roles they play in our lives, and by aligning that with a sense of empathy to ensure that we create science shaped by walking in the shoes of many different people.

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