Giving new meaning to the term popular science, renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in March 2018, earned his rightful place in the pop culture universe by both making cameos in and inspiring various television shows, movies and music. Just as he made complex subjects like quantum physics and the mechanics of black holes more accessible to the more than 10 million readers who bought his 1988 tome A Brief History of Time, he succeeded with his big and small screen appearances just by being down to earth.
While scientists aren't typically known for their humor, Hawking made science a laughing matter. "Life would be tragic if it weren't funny," the scientist, who followed in Sir Isaac Newton's footsteps to secure the title of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, told the New York Times in 2004.
Indeed, he had endured his own share of tragedy early in life, having first been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as a 21-year-old cosmology student at the University of Cambridge. The crippling disease eventually left him confined to a chair with limited mobility and an automated voice box as his only means of verbal communication. Still, he never lost his trademark sense of humor.
Hawking even hilariously weighed in on the cosmological effect of Zayn Malik leaving the boy band One Direction in 2015. “Finally, a question about something important,” he said. “It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another, different universe. And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”
Here's a brief history of the Hawking's most astronomical pop culture appearances.
1. 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Hawking's first foray into the entertainment realm manifested in the form of the scientist becoming the first (and only) person to ever play himself on Star Trek. In the June 1993 episode titled "Descent," Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) arranges a poker game between hologram versions of Hawking, Newton and Albert Einstein "to see how three of history’s greatest minds would interact in this setting.” Hawking won both the hand as well as big laughs with the tongue-in-cheek barbs he tossed at Newton over his "apple story."
2. 'The Simpsons'
Who better to assess Homer Simpson’s “donut-shaped universe” theory than Hawking? The academic lent his voice to a cartooned version of himself in the 1999 episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain." The animated series' writers later revealed that Hawking, who would later appear in three additional episodes, attended table reads and even personally typed in the lines which producers recorded as they would with any voice actor. “It’s good to know that we were taking the most brilliant man in the world and using his time to record ‘Fruitopia’ in individual syllables,” showrunner Mike Scully joked in the Season 10 episode's DVD commentary.
3. 'The Big Bang Theory'
To date, Hawking — the hero of actor Jim Parsons' protagonist Sheldon Cooper — has appeared in seven episodes of the hit comedy. In addition to besting the gang of lovable geeks in the intellect department, the god-like Hawking also provided moments of pure comedic gold. In 2012's “The Hawking Excitation” episode, he gave the following hilarious evaluation of Sheldon's Higgs boson theory: “You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner.”
Also from Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Futurama drew Hawking into multiple episodes of the animated series that he once said he loved "more than George Takei." During his first appearance in the 2000's “Anthology of Interest,” Hawking plays one of Al Gore’s Action Rangers, responsible for repairing any rips in the space-time continuum. (In one of the episode's highlights, he comically steals credit for a discovery.) Hawking, who was equipped with eye lasers on the show, even presented Groening with a lifetime achievement award at the 2004 British Comedy Awards.
5. 'Last Week Tonight With John Oliver'
Hawking's hilarious 2014 interview on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver perfectly showcased his quick wit as he joking sparred with the host. After Oliver asked that if, based on Hawking's belief in "an infinite number of parallel universes,” there is one where he is actually the smarter of the two, Hawking deadpanned, “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny.” Following Hawking's death, Oliver tweeted, "Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man, but he was also an incredibly funny man. It was a huge privilege to waste some of his time, and I'll never forget the twinkle in his eye..."
6. 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien'
In another classic late-night TV exchange, Hawking phoned comedian Jim Carrey for a 2003 on-air discussion of everything from the ekpyrotic theory of the universe to Carrey's film Dumb and Dumber. No one was safe from Hawking's lighthearted jabs — even the studio audience. When Carrey began discussing physics, Hawking said, “Don’t bother trying to explain it to them. Their pea brains cannot grasp the idea."
7. 'The Theory of Everything'
Eddie Redmayne won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking and the impact of his ALS diagnosis in the 2014 James Marsh-directed biopic. When collecting his Oscar, Redmayne dedicated the award to Hawking, who provided his own voice for the film, and the rest of his family, including Hawking's first wife Jane, whose memoir the movie was based upon.
8. Pink Floyd's "Keep Talking"
The rock band first used a sample of Hawking's voice — taken from a 1993 TV commercial for British telephone company BT — for the track on their 1994 album, The Division Bell. Two years later, the group, again, used a clip of Hawking speaking for their 2014 song "Talkin' Hawkin'"
9. Red Nose Day 2015 Skit
In a Little Britain comedy sketch for the 2015 Comic Relief Red Nose Day charity fundraiser, Hawking went rogue. After uttering the phrase, “Stephen Hawking-bot, transform,” he "turned into" a Transformer and chased actors David Walliams and Catherine Tate off of the set.
10. Monty Python
Hawking used his voice in a whole new way for 2014's Monty Python live reunion shows. Hawking sang the title track from the 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and in a funny music video, also takes down fellow physicist Brian Cox for challenging the scientific soundness of the song's lyrics.