Cambridge University Professor Stephen William Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA died peacefully in his sleep on March 14, 2018 at the age of 76. Incidentally, the day is also known as Pi Day. Prof. Hawking, a well-known cosmologist, theoretical physicist and author, was very interested in the universe’s origin and the nature of gravity.
He was a symbol of curiosity and human determination. He was given only a few months to live when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at age 22. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it is characterized by the death of motor neurons that control the voluntary muscles. A person with ALS will have muscles decreasing in size. The person will also experience muscle twitching and still muscles, making it difficult for the person to swallow, speak and eventually, breathe.
The Ice Bucket Challenge that was started in 2014 increased awareness about the disease.
Prof. Hawking was confined to a special motorized wheelchair and spoke using a device that generates speech (voice synthesizer). He used to hold the switch to the synthesizer but later controlled it by using a single muscle in his cheek.
Stephen Hawking’s education from grade school, high school and college was almost uneventful and he even felt inadequate, despite the fact that studying came easy to him. He later discovered an aptitude for science and decided to take up mathematics. He was mostly bored during his undergraduate years because he found it too easy. Taking his doctoral studies was also difficult for him. He wanted to be assigned to Fred Hoyle, a famous astronomer. Instead he was assigned to Dennis William Sciama, who was one of modern cosmology’s founders.
He felt that his studies in mathematics were inadequate for cosmology and general relativity. He got depressed when he was diagnosed with ALS although the disease was slow to progress he felt that it would be a waste of time. But Sciama encouraged him to continue his studies and he later developed a new sense of brashness and brilliance.
Much debate was going on about the Steady State and Big Bang theories during the time that he was going for graduate studies and he wrote his thesis based on the ”theorem of a space-time singularity in the centre of black holes” [sic] by Roger Penrose.
Inspiration to many
Prof. Hawking roamed the cosmos within the confines of his wheelchair. As a scientist, he captured the public imagination like Albert Einstein, according to theoretical physics professor Michio Kaku of the City University of New York.
Millions adored him after the publication of his book in 1988. “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes” sold over 10 million copies. It inspired Errol Morris to create a documentary film and the award-winning feature film, “The Theory of Everything” was inspired by his personal story.
Professor Hawking will be remembered by the scientific community and the public for his discovery that the black hole is no longer black after it explodes. He was a leader in exploring the black holes’ properties as well as gravitational exploration. The brilliant cosmologist discovered in 1973 that black holes are not actually black. He also discovered that those mysterious and befuddling black holes fizzle out in time. In so doing, the black holes would leak particles and radiation. Eventually they explode and disappear.
The cosmologist said that he did not initially believe that the particles would originate from black holes. He added that he was not looking for that but tripped on that discovery and that annoyed him.
The calculation, which became known as the Hawking radiation, was included in the thesis published in the Nature journal. It was titled “Black Hole Explosions?” Scientists called it the first landmark in the difficult search to come up one theory of nature that connects quantum mechanics and gravity. It somehow demystified the aura surrounding black holes, explaining that they were recyclers and creators instead of destroyers.
His thesis allowed other scientists to focus on new directions in the study of the universe and black holes.
Pushing the limits in all aspects of his life
In all aspects of his life, Dr. Hawking pushed the limits. He traveled everywhere and attended scientific meetings. He married twice and had three children. His first wife was a linguistics student. He appeared in movies and TV shows and wrote best-selling books. He went up on a hot air balloon to mark his 60th birthday. He even broke his leg because he crashed his electric-powered wheelchair in the campus of Cambridge.
He went aboard the specially equipped Boeing 727 to experience zero gravity flight. He was aiming to have a space trip aboard the SpaceShipTwo of Virgin Galactic, a company owned by Sir Richard Branson.
He was experiencing many things that even fully functional people cannot experience. When asked why he was taking such risks despite his condition, he said the he wanted people to see that physical handicaps should not limit them in doing things normal people do as long as their spirit is not disabled.
Dr. Hawking was truly exceptional and inspirational. As Martin Rees, a fellow cosmologist and Cambridge colleague aptly put it, Dr. Hawking’s life is a triumph. Despite being handicapped he had so many achievements, which is a demonstration of his incredible determination and will power.
Due to his debilitating illness, he had difficulty writing, much less speaking. He relied on other people to write the long equations and properly code them into the right math language.
Dr. Stephen William Hawking may have left this earth, but his scientific legacy will live on. As many researchers put it, they are just beginning to understand black holes better, thanks to the discoveries of Dr. Hawking. His theories will be their jump off point to further study the theory of relativity and the existence of black holes, now that they know that those enigmatic cosmic formations actually fade after they explode.
Image Credit: By No machine-readable author provided. Avibliz assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons