Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair-bound physicist who propelled his theories about black holes, quantum mechanics and the universe into the mainstream and himself into pop culture, died at the age of 76 this week. An American scientist in their twenties today, who shows the same promise as Hawking and also receives a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, would be lucky to live half as long or achieve half as much with Donald Trump as president.
Hawking's American, modern-day counterpart wouldn't take kindly to Trump's mocking impression of a disabled reporter during the campaign. While Hawking credits the UK's National Health Service (NHS) for his longevity, a serious pre-existing condition in the US could make securing health insurance expensive or impossible, raising the prospect of bankruptcy and early death. Trump has also waged war on science, questioning the threat of climate change and suggesting vaccines cause autism; drafted plans to slash funding for scientific agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and NASA's astrophysics division; and scrapped regulations around clean air and water to relieve businesses of such burdens. Hawking has specifically criticised Trump for withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and appointing Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, warning that the pair's denial of climate change "will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children." A young American physicist would likely be discouraged by his government's attitudes and might be denied the care and financing needed to draft theories of everything or publish brief histories of time.
Past US presidents might have found the money to support a genius and national treasure, but it's hard to imagine Trump respecting or caring about a bespectacled brainiac in a wheelchair, lecturing him through a computer about humanity's insignificance. Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine an American Stephen Hawking relocating to a nation where leaders don't ridicule disabled people, research funding is viewed as an investment and social good rather than government largesse, healthcare is available to all, and threats to the Earth's future aren't ignored because they're inconvenient.
Hawking's brilliance, passion and unyielding spirit, combined with the support of his loved ones and his country and a good dose of luck, enabled him to succeed beyond all expectations. However, his story doubles as a warning that failing to support vulnerable members of our society risks squandering their talents and impeding humanity's progress.