How Stephen Hawking inspired a generation of Chinese

Updated 2018-03-15 10:39:03

Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds in physics who claimed that "Einstein was wrong," passed away on Wednesday. Memoirs and articles commemorating him flooded the screens of Chinese internet users. As of press time, 74.35 million Chinese net users had joined in #Hawking# discussions on official microblog Sina Weibo. From now on, some sighed, no one can explain the theory of the universe to us mortals.

China's reform and opening-up gave birth to the scientific and technological revolution in the country that made Hawking so popular with the Chinese people.

In June 2006, more than 6,000 people showed up to hear Hawking's speech at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. The number, according to reports, set a new record for audiences at academic lectures in the history of physics worldwide. Among them, about 600 were scientists and the rest were mostly students and scientific researchers, who could not necessarily comprehend what Hawking said, but still showed enthusiasm for science and respect for his genius.

It was Hawking's third tour of the Middle Kingdom, which set off not only a storm of media reports but a buying spree for his book. Chinese people adore him more than Hollywood stars.

Yet before reform and opening-up, few polite words could describe the state of Chinese scientific research. When former US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 with a mobile satellite ground station, Chinese people were amazed by the technology of satellite communication.

The predicament did not last long. During the National Science Conference on March 18, 1978, China's former leader Deng Xiaoping announced that the period when Chinese intellectuals were denounced and persecuted was gone. Science and technology, Deng said, constituted a primary productive force.

Shortly afterward, a passion for scientific research started to sweep across the nation. In the same year, China launched reform and opening-up, which broadened the horizons of Chinese scientific research.

Today China is witnessing rapid development in the defense, aerospace and transportation industries. It ranks No. 2 in research and development spending by country. Chinese scientists also enjoy top social status. Hawking is one of very few foreign scientists famous in China from the beginning of reform and opening-up. He witnessed the development of Chinese science and participated in it once in a while.

The hospitality he received in China showed the status of scientists among the Chinese public. His popularity in China triggered young people's thirst for science. For a country which is now on the path of pursuing innovation, who else could evoke such yearning for a better future? Perhaps when Chinese people show gratitude to reform and opening-up, they should give thanks as well to Hawking.

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