Midnight. As I was browsing the internet, I saw, like shooting stars, emails suddenly appear and disappear from the right-hand corner of my computer screen. The first from CNN announcing the death of Stephen Hawking, the second from an editor at The Atlantic asking me to write about him.
I had written about the man for 10 years—as a biographer of some sort, or an anthropologist of science to be more precise, studying the traces of Hawking’s presence. But now I felt a powerless inertia, unable to write anything. I didn’t think I would be affected by his death, but it touched me deeply. I was overwhelmed by the numerous articles that started to appear all over the world doing precisely what I had studied for so long and so carefully: recycling over and over again the same stories about him. Born 300 years after the death of Galileo Galilei, holder of Cambridge’s Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (once held by Isaac Newton), and now ... died on the same day Albert Einstein was born. The life paths of history’s most iconic scientists intersected in weird ways. The puzzle seemed complete: Hawking had fully entered the pantheon of the great.
Because of him, I too had been in the eyes of the press. After I wrote an article in Wired magazine about his reliance on technology, I received an incendiary message on my answering machine accusing me of desacralizing his iconic status by transforming him into a robot. My picture circulated in the Daily Mail with Darth Vader at my side. I even received death threats. But I was arguing not that he was more machine than human, but rather that he was like all of us: all too human, and always dependent on others, whether humans or machines.