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How Stephen Hawking became a celebrity physicist

Physicist Professor Stephen Hawking speaks at Zellerbach Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus March 13, 2007 in Berkeley, California. 

Stephen Hawking's new book, "My Brief History," comes out Tuesday, laden with the anticipation of any celebrity memoir. Hawking is famous for putting the universe's big questions into terms the rest of us can understand. Improbably, he has succeeded in turning theoretical physics into the stuff of cocktail parties and water cooler banter.

Hawking's 1983 book, "A Brief History of Time," spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it's sold 10 million copies. But the material is hard to digest. Cosmologist Michael Turner, who teaches at the University of Chicago, says, as pop science goes, "Not only is it the most sold book of all time, it's the most unread book of all time."

Not everyone who buys it reads it, and yet, Hawking's ideas have seeped into the popular imagination with unusual force, Turner says, making Hawking, "physicists' rockstar."

"Questions that he addresses in his work," Turner says, "are ones that just capture anyone's imagination, like the arrow of time: can you change the direction time moves?" Or baby universes: "Is it possible for our universe to spawn other universes?"

Dave Mosher, projects editor at Popular Science Magazine, compares Hawking's fame to Einstein's or Newton's. "Even though they're unlikely, in terms of celebrity status," he says, "they stick around because they have described an essential part of what it means to be human, through the lens of science and mathematics."

Almost completely paralyzed by a rare motor neuron disease, Hawking has used a wheelchair for decades, and he uses his cheek muscles to communicate through a computer, at about one word a minute. Michael Moyer, physics editor at Scientific American, credits Hawking for pushing theoretical physics in a direction it wouldn't have gone without his contributions. Yet his ideas have resonated all the more, Moyer says, because of his unusual personal story.

"In the public's eye," Moyer says, "him being who he is and having the identity he does, really makes it simple for us to understand this great mind trapped in a body that doesn't work."

Mosher says that contrast is at the core of Hawking's "brand"—bold, difficult, ideas, paired with an incredible physical challenge.

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