The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight great Stephen Hawking quotes on school, intelligence, aliens, goldfish and more

Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking passed away at his home in Cambridge, England, on March 14.  (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Stephen Hawking, who died Wednesday at the age of 76, was one of the most brilliant physicists in history. He managed to do groundbreaking work despite a neurological disease that left him in a wheelchair, unable to move and forced to communicate through a computer-synthesized voice, activated when he moved his cheek.

He had an ability to make science understandable to nonscientists, most notably in his best-selling 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” which sold millions of copies. You can read more about him here. Following are some of his best-known quotes:

Stephen Hawking, physicist who came to symbolize the power of the human mind, dies at 76


At school, I was never more than about halfway up the class. It was a very bright class. My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided. — 2013, “My Brief History”


It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value. Bacteria, and other single cell organisms, will live on, if all other life on Earth is wiped out by our actions. — “Life in the Universe” lecture


I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth. — 2010 Discovery Channel
We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. — 2010 Discovery Channel


I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers. — 2004 New York Times interview


I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road. — 1993, “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays”


A few years ago, the City Council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls … saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?
The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste. — 2010 Time magazine article


It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. … Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” — August 2010 interview

(Update: Removing “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” An earlier version said it was in one of his books or his OXford University graduation speech. That cannot be confirmed, and there are questions about whether he really said it.)