An Honor and a Party for Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist from Great Britain, was one of two scientists among yesterday's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here's what President Obama had to say about Hawking:

Professor Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man and a mediocre student when he lost his balance and tumbled down a flight of stairs. Diagnosed with a rare disease and told he had just a few years to live, he chose to live with new purpose and happily in the four decades since he has become one of the world’s leading scientists. His work in theoretical physics, which I will not attempt to explain further here, has advanced our understanding of the universe. His popular books have advanced the cause of science itself. From his wheelchair, he’s led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest regions of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and shown us the power of the human spirit here on Earth.

Scientists don't often receive the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, and it's far rarer to find a British scientist on the list. But Hawking is special. He has not only made significant advances in fields like theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity, but he has also been a successful writer of popular science books, both while dealing with a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that has put him into a wheelchair and made him dependent on a computer for speech.

The British Embassy here in Washington, D.C., hosted a small party for Hawking last night, and I had the privilege to attend with some of the city's science elite: John Holdren, the president's science advisor; Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation; Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. (Odd moment: meeting Jim Guy Tucker, former governor of Arkansas and self-described Hawking fan.)

Hawking gave a small speech in which he emphasized the importance of freedom in science. Galileo Galilei (who, in an odd coincidence, died exactly 300 years before Hawking was born) had been imprisoned in his home by the Catholic Church for the crime of saying the Earth moved around the Sun. Hawking said that, had he lived in Galileo's time, he might have been put in jail for his own scientific work, but that would not have stopped him from thinking about the universe.

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