MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE
How Stephen Hawking changed the world
HE was trapped in a wheelchair. But Professor Stephen Hawking was an explorer in every sense of the word.
Through his thoughts, he opened up new worlds to humanity.
It would have been easy for the world-renowned theoretical physicist’s life to slip into despair but instead, Hawking overcame his debilitating life sentence and spent his 76 years broadening the horizons of our universe before his departure yesterday.
His children Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today ... His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.
“He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever.”
With those words the world discovered it had lost a generation’s greatest mind.
If you hadn’t seen or heard the wheelchair-bound, electronic-voiced genius on documentaries, the news or in his three appearances on The Simpsons, you’d probably know him through 2014 movie The Theory of Everything.
Certainly, everybody who ever had anything to do with the mysteries of time and space knew him well.
Not since famed physicist Albert Einstein has anyone had the impact on the world of physics that Hawking had.
He strove to discover how Einstein’s seminal theory of relativity — which defined the nature of space and time — meshed with our modern understanding of quantum theory: the behaviour of the chaotic, infinitesimally small building blocks of the universe. It is mind-bending stuff. Hawking had the mind for it. But he had to beat the odds to apply it.
“Through it all, of course, his illness made his achievements near-superhuman,” says fellow astrophysicist and Swinburne University science communicator Dr Alan Duffy. “How he manipulated Einstein’s equations in his mind when he could no longer hold a pen I can’t even begin to imagine.”
In Hawking’s own words, he felt “somewhat of a tragic character” after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig’s disease — at age 21.
He was given no more than five years to live. He lasted more than 50. The black hole of despair beckoned.
But Hawking found a way to escape.
He returned to work. He married Jane Wilde. He had three children.
And he published ideas that shook our understanding of the universe.
“Professor Hawking was an inspiration to me to become — not just a scientist — but a communicator of that science,” Dr Duffy says. “His
work as a cosmologist, and discoveries in black hole physics were legendary.
“He was also wonderfully funny with a fantastic media savviness that propelled him into A-list celebrity stardom.”
But Dr Duffy says it was Hawking’s work with black hole physics that made him a legend in his own lifetime.
“His best-known prediction, named by the community as Hawking Radiation, transformed the black holes from inescapable gravitational prisons into objects that instead shrink and fade away over time,” he says.
“While his many contributions will live on, there is no doubt that science and the wider world is the poorer for his passing.”
Hawking escaped the confines of academia in 1988 with the publication of A Brief History of Time, which not only made astrophysics comprehensible to the masses but also made it popular.
He became an unlikely international celebrity. Often unable to travel, Hawking instead crossed space and time through the marvels of live video at first — and then as a hologram. His projection made just such an appearance at the Sydney Opera House in 2015 to present a lecture.
“Although I would love to be there in person,” he quipped, “the idea of being the first person to appear as a hologram on the stage at the Opera House was too good an offer to refuse.”
Born in Oxford in 1942 to a pair of Oxford University graduates, Hawking’s struggles with school led him to build his own computer out of scrap and make it capable of solving simple math problems. Eventually, he graduated with honours in natural science.
His mum Isobel said: “Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder, and I could see that the stars would draw him.”
He manipulated in Einstein’s equations he could his mind when a pen no longer hold Astrophysicist Dr Alan Duffy
Hawking and first wife Jane (centre) with actors Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne at the premiere of The Theory of Everything in London. Hawking on The Simpsons.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge in 2014 and (insets left) marrying second wife Elaine Mason in 1995 and floating on a zero gravity jet in 2007.