Stephen Hawking, 10.26.16

By now many fans have seen the photo: Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost theoretical physicists in the world, with a Portland Timbers scarf around his neck.

Back in mid-August, when the photo first began circulating on social media, the #RCTID community was abuzz with speculation. How did that Timbers scarf end up around the neck of perhaps the most recognizable scientist in the world?

The answer is more complicated than you might think.

The man responsible for the photo is Brett Bigham, a Portland special education teacher who won the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year award and who received an NEA National Award for Excellence in Education the very next year. Bigham holds the distinction of being the first special education teacher to receive both awards.

Last year, Bigham had nine students in his class who used voice output machines like the one Dr. Hawking so famously uses. Determined to reach all of his students, Bigham learned everything he could about the machines, even sparking a correspondence with the famous scientist that led to an invitation to Dr. Hawking's Cambridge University office this past August.

“I didn't really know what to expect,” Bigham says of the invitation. “At first I thought it would be a meet and great – take a picture and that's that. But he actually set aside several hours and [we] just really had a chance to talk about how those machines change a person's life when they don't have a voice.”

As part of his visit, Bigham promised that he would bring along a gift from Oregon. He had asked Dr. Hawking whether he preferred the Beavers or the Ducks, referring to the mascots of Oregon's two largest public universities.

While Dr. Hawking didn't respond to that query, Bigham went ahead with his plan to bring a scarf representing one or both of those schools. But when he went to the Beavers store, there were no scarves yet on the shelf. While the Oregon Ducks store did have scarves for sale, he couldn’t find one he really liked.

With only one day remaining before his departure for Europe, Bigham had a visit with his physical therapist and began telling him about his dilemma. Without missing a beat, Bigham's therapist, a big Timbers fan, offered up a Timbers Stand Together scarf that had been adorning the office.

“He actually took one off the wall and gave me that to take to Stephen Hawking,” Bigham remembers. “And that ended up being the one [Dr. Hawking] wore. He liked that one I guess.

“[Dr. Hawking] was really happy to have it,” he adds. “He was a really nice guy. He was just happy to get a personal gift. Just the perfect thing to bring from Portland that's for sure.”

After snapping the picture of Dr. Hawking wearing the Timbers scarf, Bigham sent it to his friend Alan Moore, a staff member of the Oregon Education Association union and a diehard Timbers fan. It was Moore who then shared the photo on Twitter.

The result was a viral hit that made it to the pages of The Oregonian's website and onto several local news broadcasts.

“Stephen Hawking rocks Timbers scarf,” reads the headline from both KGW and KATU.

Bigham, who recently met Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, concedes that there may be a valuable lesson here.

“I didn't think about [scarfing Secretary Clinton],” Bigham says. “If I ever meet her again I'll have to take her a [Timbers] scarf.”