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“God-like” Stephen Hawking’s popularity on Chinese social media soars at light speed

Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Stephen Hawking at an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative in New York.
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The legendary physicist Stephen Hawking has become the fastest rising star in China’s Internet realm after earning more than 2 million “fans” in just 24 hours with only two posts on Sina Weibo – including an announcement to Chinese internet users about his new project to aid in the search for life in the universe on the Twitter-like site (registration required).

“I last visited China in 2006 when I took part in a physics conference in Beijing,” Hawking wrote in his first Weibo message, which has garnered over 350,000 comments and 340,000 re-posts so far.

“In my physical travels, I have only been able to touch the surface of your fascinating history and culture,” he recalled. “But now I can communicate with you through social media.”

Foreign figures from celebrities to company executives and politicians have been flocking to Sina Weibo—which has 66 million daily active users—to reach Chinese citizens. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has gained 170,000 fans. Apple CEO Tim Cook has done better with 800,000.

But they still can’t beat Japanese actress Sora Aoi. The former porn star has won the affection from 16 million followers by frequently updated posts with her SFW—”Safe For Work”—selfies and Chinese calligraphy works.

Before Hawking became the latest darling of Chinese social media, he has already been a household name in the country—the Chinese version of his book A Brief History of Time sold more than 100,000 copies by 2002, second only to the circulation of the original English version, according to its Chinese translator Wu Zhongchao (link in Chinese).

Hawking introduced his ”Breakthrough Starshot” project in his second Weibo post on Wednesday (Apr. 13) morning. The $100 million initiative, announced Tuesday, aims to send thousands of tiny spacecrafts to Alpha Centauri, the closest solar system to our own, in the search of life elsewhere in the universe.

Hawking wrote those “nanocrafts” are propelled by light beams that can push them to 20% of the speed of light. “Only by going that fast can we reach the stars on the time-scale of a human life,” he explained in both English and Chinese.

The project’s concept might be hard to grasp but it did not dampen the enthusiasm of Hawking’s Chinese fans. “The first time I’m so excited about a Weibo post that I cannot understand,” one blogger commented under the post, getting more than 5,000 likes.

Another wrote that he thought he should’ve left a message “but I’m running out of words.”

“I’ll copy the Weibo posts of the God-like Hawking and recite them all!” one wrote to his idol.

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