The late, great physicist beat Data at cards one time.
Stephen Hawking, the world-famous physicist and best-selling author known for his great mind as well as his self-determination in overcoming his physical disabilities, has died at age 76. His passing is a loss to the world of science to be sure, but Hawking was also one of the most famous fans to ever live. And his love for pop-culture sometimes combined with his celebrity to great effect, leading to several memorable cameos and guest appearances on a variety of TV shows including The Simpsons, Futurama and The Big Bang Theory. But it was his turn on Star Trek: The Next Generation that is perhaps his most touching, and appropriate, now that he has died.
The 1993 episode “Descent” opens with TNG’s resident android Data playing a game of cards with some of the greatest scientific minds of history: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein… and Stephen Hawking. Of course, on the starship Enterprise this is totally feasible thanks to the holodeck, and Newton, Einstein and Hawking are actually holographic representations of their famed selves.
While Newton and Einstein are of course played by actors, Hawking appears as himself. (In fact, he’s the only person to ever play his or herself on the show.) As a fan of the series, Hawking was reportedly delighted to appear in the segment, and also participated in a set tour during his visit to Paramount. Yes, he even sat in the captain’s chair at one point.
As for the scene itself, it’s funny, charming, and as of today, heartwarming. It opens with Hawking telling a joke — I guess — about “the perihelion of Mercury.” I didn’t really understand what that was until I googled it (and still only kinda understand), but Einstein thinks it’s hilarious. Newton, however, is unmoved, the science of it all escaping him. (According to Memory Alpha, the ultimate online Trek wiki, “The perihelion precession of Mercury could not be explained by Newtonian physics alone, and was regarded as a major flaw of Newton’s theory, but it later was explained by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.” I’ll buy that.)
Newton is the real grouch of the scene, the guy invited to the party who doesn’t get everyone else’s jokes, but Hawking — in reality and in holographic form — is clearly having the time of his life alongside his fellow geniuses. When Newton starts to talk about the apple that fell on his head, Hawking responds in his computerized voice, “Not the apple story again.”
The scene ends, of course, with Hawking winning the hand, telling Einstein, “Wrong again, Albert.” Then Data has to hurry off for the next Star Trek adventure, deactivating the holographic program for now.
Back in 1993 the scene was great not because of how much fun it is, but also because it did that thing Star Trek does so well — linking itself to our world and reality. Of course Stephen Hawking would be considered one of the most brilliant physicists in history, even in TNG’s 24th century future. It’s a conceit on the part of the writers that connects us, the audience, to the world of Trek, and it’s something we buy into completely.
But now that Hawking has passed, the scene has an even greater impact. He and his achievements will be remembered for a long time to come in the world of science, but he’s also now virtually immortal thanks to his Star Trek experience. And who knows? Maybe someday we actually will be recreating Stephen Hawking in holographic form.
Watch the Stephen Hawking scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation here: