Stephen Hawking Showed the Power of an Unconstrained Mind

He saw far.

Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

In "Professor Dowell's Head," a 1925 science fiction novel by Alexander Belyayev that was a must read when I was a kid, a dying scientist bequeaths his body to a colleague who then revives just the heart and the head. In this form, Professor Dowell lives on but hates it. The life of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who died Wednesday, had been almost like fictional Dowell's since the 1980s, and he cherished it.

Hawking's scientific achievements are too obscure for most people, even though he was outstanding at popularizing his work. "A Brief History of Time," his popular work on cosmology, sold 10 million copies but has been described as "the most popular book never read." Most of those who helped crash the website on which Hawking's 1966 Ph.D. thesis, "Properties of Expanding Universes," was published last year probably couldn't get through the manuscript. The origins and size of the universe and the inner workings of time are esoteric matters, and to get at Hawking's bird's-eye view, one would need to be quite a high-flying bird. "The subject of this book is the structure of space-time on length-scales from 10^-13 cm, the radius of an elementary particle, up to 10^28 cm, the radius of the universe," a monograph Hawking coauthored with mathematician George F.R. Ellis in 1973, states boldly on Page 2.

So for an overwhelming majority of people, Hawking's real value has been in proving that a powerful brain doesn't really need a functioning body to survive, thrive and even have fun. Hawking arguably did more for the ascendance of nerd culture than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put together: They were visionary and at times eccentric, but Hawking has been more than that: Disembodied, a living challenge to the laws of nature he wanted to bring into a single "theory of everything." That's why Silicon Valley CEOs grieve his death. And the space entrepreneurs — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson — have merely been following his most famous advice: "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet."