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Remembering Stephen Hawking: a personal story

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Jeff Tyson

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking passed away early on Wednesday and members of the science community worldwide are remembering his legacy.

Yangyang Cheng

Particle physicist and postdoctoral research associate

Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist and postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University. Cheng was born and raised in southeastern China. Her father – who passed away when she was 10, was a mechanical science and engineering professor at the University of Science and Technology of China. Cheng says that Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” became a "window" into the father she never got to know.

Cheng says:

“Being a young academic, my father was often away on work trips, and in the late 90s he spent a couple years working in the UK and the US as a visiting scientist when I was in elementary school. In his absence I would go to his study, tiptoe and stare at his giant bookshelf. Among the volumes of literature and philosophy with faded cloth covers, there was a series of popular science books in sleek dark design that stood out against the rest. The most notable in the series was the one with the shortest name, 时间简史, the Chinese translation of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’.

“As a child science nerd, I had deployed cool phrases like blackholes and time travel into my vocabulary, despite being too young to understand their meaning in full, and I knew Hawking was considered the most brilliant mind alive. I longed for the day I’d be able to read that book.

“My father passed away very suddenly when I just turned 10 years old. It would be years before I was able to gradually read off his bookshelf. I finally read the translated copy of ‘A Brief History of Time’ when I was fifteen, in the summer before I started university to study physics at my father’s alma mater and former workplace. For me, ‘A Brief History of Time’ was not only an introduction to some of the most fascinating topics in physics, but also a window into the father I never got to know and the brilliant mind I was supposed to inherit. It’s only so fitting that the book was about time, albeit on a cosmological scale. For me it was also a conduit across time, and life and death itself.”

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