My history hero: Bobby Seagull chooses Stephen Hawking (1942–2018)

Bobby Seagull, University Challenge star, writer and broadcaster, chooses theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as his history hero

Professor Stephen Hawking in his office at the University of Cambridge, 2003

Stephen Hawking: in profile

Stephen Hawking was a British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, best known for his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988), which has sold more than 10 million copies. In 1963 the Cambridge academic was diagnosed with motor neurone disease; he died aged 76, after living with the disease for more than 50 years. The twice-married father of three’s life story was told in the hit biopic The Theory of Everything (2014).

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When did you first hear about Stephen Hawking?

When I was at primary school, my elder brother Davey unearthed an old copy of Readers Digest and found an article about Stephen Hawking. He then bought a copy of A Brief History of Time that stared at me on our bookshelf for years. It was only while studying for my A-level physics that I read the book and finally got to understand Hawking’s insights into the universe.

What made Hawking a hero?

For more than 50 years he defied a disease that should have killed him in five. Obviously he’s a rock star of a scientist, but he is also a family hero. When applying to the University of Cambridge for his undergrad studies, Davey (who has used a wheelchair since childhood) wrote to Hawking for advice. Hawking’s reply inspired my brother to apply successfully to Cambridge – and all four boys in my family subsequently went to Oxbridge.

Hawking’s correspondence with my brother changed my family’s path. My brother even had an electric wheelchair race with him

Hawking’s correspondence with my brother changed my family’s path. My brother later met Hawking several times, even having an electric wheelchair race against him (Davey won!). Hawking also stayed in Davey’s wheelchair-friendly room once in Cambridge. Their photo takes pride of place in our family living room.

Is there anything you don’t hugely admire about him?

Hawking believed that given the vastness of the universe, it is likely that aliens exist. But if aliens were to visit us, he thought the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus landed in America – which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. He believed that aliens might pillage the Earth for resources, but I’m more optimistic!

Can you see any parallels between your lives?

Despite his debilitating illness, Hawking was one of science’s great popularisers, conveying ideas about theoretical physics and cosmology to millions, and inspiring a generation of people to study science. On a smaller scale, I’d love to inspire children and adults, through my teaching, TV shows and writing, to share my passion for numbers.

What would you ask Hawking if you could meet him?

I’d ask if he’d be happy to play a cameo role in my next BBC series of Monkman & Seagulls Genius Guides!

Who would have won if you were on rival University Challenge teams?

I would just be in awe playing against him. His knowledge of science would crush mine. However, my pop culture knowledge of hip-hop, film and even Love Island would win me points too!

Bobby Seagull, star of University Challenge, is a mathematician, teacher, writer and broadcaster. His book, The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers, is out now. His Twitter is @Bobby_Seagull. He was talking to York Membery

LISTEN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine