Stephen Hawking just celebrated his 76th birthday on Jan. 8, so perhaps unsurprisingly, a selection of the words of wisdom which he has bestowed upon us over the years and decades have been making the rounds this week — but two have perhaps made the biggest splash: These viral quotes from Stephen Hawking have a valuable message about hope and perseverance that have many pointing to them as words of advice and inspiration for people who might be struggling with depression. Although the quotes aren’t incredibly recent — they’re from a few years ago — they’re worth revisiting, so let’s take a look.
The quotes are from the pair of lectures Hawking gave as part of the 2016 Reith Lectures program. The Reith Lectures were begun in 1948 as a way to “mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John Reith,” according to the BBC; as such, each year, the Beeb invites a “leading figure” to deliver a lecture series aimed at [advancing] public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.” The idea is for the lectures to fall in with Reith’s belief that radio broadcasting should be “a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation.”
Hawking’s lectures, which were aired on Radio 4 in two parts at the end of January and beginning of February in 2016, addressed black holes —perhaps unsurprisingly, as black holes have been a large area of focus for Hawking throughout his career. Each lecture also included a Q&A session that allowed audience members to ask Hawking and receive answers about a wide variety of questions; these questions ranged from his scientific ideas to thoughts about his life.
Part of the quote that’s currently going viral is from the first lecture’s Q&A session. It was an answer to a question from a 17-year-old listener who asked “what inspired [Hawking] to keep on going despite all the rough times in [his] life” — the implication being Hawking’s diagnosis at the age of 21 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and his ensuing health struggles as the main focus.
“I think my work and a sense of humor have kept me going,” Hawking said. “When I turned 21 my expectations were reduced to zero. You probably know this already because there’s been a movie about it,” he noted, referring to the 2014 film The Theory Of Everything. But here’s the rub, as it were:
“In this situation, it was important that I came to appreciate what I did have. Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I have been very fortunate in almost everything else. I have been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time, and it’s one of the few areas in which my disability was not a serious handicap. It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life may seem, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and life in general.”
Just, y’know… chew on that for a moment. Keep it in mind while we talk about the next quote, because taking the two of them in tandem is the key here.
The second part of the quote that’s currently going viral is from the second lecture — and it involves a little bit of understanding about black holes and some of Hawking’s previous and recent research about them, so bear with me for a moment while we talk about that. (Also, disclaimer: I do not have any sort of background in any of this stuff, so my understanding is likely imperfect.)
Black holes are obviously incredibly complicated, but essentially, they’re “regions in space where the pulling force of gravity is so strong that light is not able to escape,” according to NASA. The strength of the gravity results from a lot of matter being compressed into an itty-bitty space —something which tends to happen to stars when they’ve reached the end of their lives. For a long time, we thought that black holes lasted forever, which also meant that all the physical information they stored thanks to time dilation — a side effect of relativity — would also conceivably last forever.
In the 1970s, though, Hawking made a discovery that flew in the face of everything we thought we knew about black holes: They have a temperature, and over incredibly long periods of time, they evaporate, releasing their energy out into the universe as something we now refer to as Hawking radiation. A paradox subsequently arose from this idea: If the mass of black holes evaporates — which means that one day, it will disappear — what happens to all of the physical information stored in the black hole? It’s called the black hole information paradox, and it’s puzzled us for decades.
A lot of theories exist about what happens to the information — everything from it being irretrievably lost to it being stored in a variety of ways — and in recent years, Hawking has put forth a new one: The information is saved in “soft particles” (low-energy versions of the kinds of particles that exist in zero-energy empty space) which can later be returned out of the black hole by a mechanism he’s still exploring today.
That’s where this quote comes in. Hawking concludes his second Reith Lecture, which talked about this theory, as follows:
“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain't as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don't give up. There's a way out.”
These two quotes — one about life, and one about black holes— remind us of some important life lessons: Try to hang onto the ability to laugh at yourself and at life more generally, and do your best to reframe bad situations when you can. Even though things might feel hopeless, a) they might be different than they at first appear, and b) there might be a way out. It’s a message of hope — a reminder that even when things are really, really bad, they can get better.
Of course, a lot of this is easier said than done. There isn’t a magical switch you can flip to instantaneously change your outlook to Look On The Bright Side Mode; additionally, I would argue that there’s also a time and a place for anger. The key is to know that it’s OK to feel the things you feel, to seek out help if and when you need it, and, if you can, to channel your anger or other feelings into fuel for something productive, rather than something destructive.
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, here are a few resources that might be useful.