Hawking was perhaps the most famous scientist in the world when he died earlier this year at age 76. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, sold ten million copies and made him an unlikely superstar even to people who sweated through high school science.
But humor was always a big part of Hawking’s effort to bring physics to the masses. In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, for instance, he recounts how, in 1277, the Catholic Church declared scientific laws such as gravity to be heretical, since they seemed to diminish God’s omnipotence. “Interestingly,” the text adds puckishly, “Pope John [XXI] was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him.”
Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking’s coauthor on The Grand Design, points out that physics and humor are more closely related than you’d expect. “Humor often relies on looking at things in different ways or making odd or unexpected associations,” says Mlodinow, who has just published a new book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change. “In physics, the same thing happens.”
In a sense, the element of the unexpected was Hawking’s secret humor weapon. It wasn’t only the absurdity of an egghead scientist shouting, “If you are looking for trouble, you found it!” before punching a guy, which an animated Hawking did on The Si