Stephen Hawking: Late Physicist Left Memorable Impact On Pop Culture Through TV Guest Roles And More

Tim P. WhitbyGetty Images

The announcement of Stephen Hawking’s death at the age of 76 came as a shock to many people, from those who were awed by, and familiar with his many theories, to those who casually recognized him as a mainstay of the scientific community. While he was, for several decades, best known as one of the most brilliant minds in science, he was also more than willing to appear in several popular television programs as himself, establishing him as a “pop culture physicist,” as CNET called him.

As recalled by CNET, Hawking’s guest spots on The Simpsons in animated form were among the most memorable of his TV roles, as he appeared on four episodes from 1999 to 2010. His first guest appearance was on the Season 10 episode, “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” which memorably featured him using a boxing glove mounted on his wheelchair to punch the bookish, humorless Principal Skinner. This guest role was very well received by fans of the show, with reviewers posting on the Simpsons Archive that Hawking was “surprisingly good” and “actually useful.”

“Almost as many people know me from The Simpsons as through my science,” said Hawking, who also referred to the long-running animated series as “the best thing on American television,” according to CNET.

Reacting to Stephen Hawking’s death, The Simpsons writer and show runner Al Jean tweeted that the English physicist had a “sense of humor as vast as the universe.”

Likewise, Hawking also made multiple appearances on Matt Groening’s other animated series, Futurama. While the cartoon Hawking often had to deal with Springfield’s oftentimes crude or boorish citizens in his Simpsons guest spots, CNET noted that he had to deal with a future world where some people didn’t recognize him, with lead character Philip Fry notably asking him if he invented gravity. Also notable was the fact that Hawking’s animated likeness on Futurama was his disembodied head in a jar, with his persona on the series unexpectedly prone to cracking wise at other characters.

Apart from the animated appearances, Stephen Hawking’s impact on pop culture also manifested in live-action series, including The Big Bang Theory. While a subsequent episode only featured his voice, but not Hawking himself, the scientist appeared on the show in 2012, commenting that Jim Parsons’ character Sheldon Cooper didn’t quite turn in a perfect paper on the Higgs boson particle.

“You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite the boner,” said Hawking on that episode, as quoted by The Guardian.

Well before those guest roles, Hawking had another memorable television appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he showed up in hologram form in a 1993 episode, with fellow scientific geniuses Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton also appearing as holograms in a poker game with Lt. Commander Data.

While Stephen Hawking mostly favored classical music, as well as the Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, on an episode of BBC’s Desert Island Discs, he also lent his voice to another one of rock music’s most iconic names, as they worked on one of their more recent albums. The Guardian noted that Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was especially inspired by Hawking’s commercial for British telecommunications company BT that he sampled his lines from the ad and used them in the song “Keep Talking,” which appeared in the band’s 1994 album, The Division Bell.

As noted by Business Insider, Stephen Hawking died “peacefully in his home” on Monday, and while no cause of death was mentioned, the physicist had battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for over five decades. Despite his condition, Hawking “proved he was happy to be on the inside laughing out,” as evidenced by his various guest appearances on TV shows, ads, and even on songs.