by Magnus Shaw
Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe - throughout the modern era, one or two human beings have exceeded their brief to be carbon-based lifeforms, walking around, eating dinner and making other carbon-based lifeforms. For want of a better word, they have become brands. By which I don't mean they have become commodities, but have come to represent more than their own selves. They are now icons, associated with vast swathes of emotions, ideas and urges. They are symbols of our time, our hopes, desires and aspirations. This transfiguration doesn't happen to many, or often, but I think we can safely admit Stephen William Hawking to that exclusive and glorious club.
There was much to appreciate in the opening ceremony of the Paralympics a fortnight ago. A deliciously hammy outing from Sir Ian McKellan, the promise of extraordinary achievements to come and a snatch of Ian Dury's 'Spasticus Autisticus.' But the spinal tingles were really triggered when Professor Hawking's immediately recognisable tones resounded through the stadium: "There should be no boundary to human endeavour."
It's quite extraordinary to realise that most of us have never heard this man's voice. The slightly staggered, but relaxed sound we so closely associate with Stephen is, of course, produced by a computerised voice synthesiser (and a rather vintage one, by all accounts). Nevertheless, to hear that machine is to hear the man himself as he has transcended its utility and made it a trademark.
Hawking suffers with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and is almost completely paralysed. The last time he was able to feed himself or rise from his bed unaided was 1974. Einstein aside, scientists rarely become celebrities, let alone brands; so for a profoundly disabled professor to attain such status is surely a unique occurrence. And yet Stephen Hawking has risen with such aplomb and obvious passion, it's hard to believe anything could have restrained him. A character able to touch so many people across the planet, despite being encased in a failed body, is a force indeed.
Making cosmology and astro-physics attractive is a tough sell. At least Presley, Dean and Monroe had the advantage of a popular product. But Hawking has made it his life's work to fascinate and compel, explain and entertain, to drag these fantastically complex subjects out of the lecture theatre and into the public conciousness. Whether by design or co-incidence, he has also become the famous face of all science. I'm convinced nobody is drawn to Stephen's books, films and television series because of his unusual physical state, but rather because he is so clearly a genius with a flair for presentation. Put simply, there are no other theoretical physicists who have simultaneously advanced mankind's scientific knowledge while making guest appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons and a Pink Floyd album, whatever the state of their health. But it is clear Stephen Hawking knows all these activities are essential to his ultimate goal: to make us think about our place in the Universe its origins and its destiny. By telling the story of the cosmos, he is telling our story and he doesn't much mind which channel he uses.
It's easy to be scathing about brands. When fizzy drink and burger companies muscle in on large sporting events, we scoff at their greed and hypocrisy. When our supermarket is also a bank and a mobile phone company, we suspect it is becoming far too powerful and ubiquitous. But in a broader sense, brands give us something on which to focus our attention and in which to place some trust. Think of the BBC's role as a news provider. The Corporation is probably the best regarded brand in news, enabling viewers and listeners to identify the authoritative source. To refer to Stephen Hawking as brand is not to suggest he is in any way a commercial sales tool, but to demonstrate his unrivalled stature on the global stage.
Stephen Hawking is a brand because he represents his specialist field in our imaginations. He is a human touchstone to whom we can turn when those massive questions arise. Are we alone in our galaxy? We should ask Stephen Hawking. What are black holes? Stephen Hawking will tell us. But more than this, he has almost become science itself. Many of us think of physics as one of the more baffling subjects from our school days, but if a publication or programme has Hawking involvement, we instantly overcome our trepidation and engage with the man. In a world of mass communication, every area of human endeavour needs a brand if it is to avoid being drowned and lost in the noise. This is the reason charities use celebrity endorsements. It is science's good fortune they have a brand, a spokesman and a towering intellectual figurehead all in one. He is Stephen Hawking.
(By the way, Hawking is certain we are not alone and alien life is out there. He's not convinced they'll have our best interests at heart though and suggests we should avoid them. Black holes? Perhaps you should just read 'A Brief History Of Time.' It 's all in there.)
Visit Stephen Hawking's website.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.