Stephen Hawking roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair
“What makes us unique is transcending our limits….How we transcend these limits with our minds and machines”, Prof. Hawking said once.
Pondering over the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe sitting rather uncomfortable on his wheelchair the supernova of quantum physics has whirled out and away into the boundless void through space and time. Prof Stephen William Hawking (76) passed away on 14 March 2018 at his home in Cambridge, England.
Hawking was born on Galilieo Galilei’s death anniversary and he passed away on Albert Einstein’s birth anniversary. He is a kind of a bridge between the Italian polymath Galilieo (1564 – 1642) and the theoretical physicist Einstein (1879 – 1955). In many ways, Hawking was the successor to Einstein. Like Einstein, he was the master of gravity, and a man whose intellectual contributions guided the work of generations of physicists.
Considered on a par with the likes of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1716) and Albert Einstein, Hawking is regarded as his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes. At the time of
Newton - mathematician, astronomer, and theologian - there were believed to be
Hawking was the celebrity public face of science. But unlike Einstein, Hawking had achieved all this in the grip of a severely debilitating disability. “Not since Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” says Dr Michio Kaku.
four distinct and fundamental forces governing nature, which were later unified and reduced to three and then two. In 1974, Hawking published his thesis on black holes which is considered the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature. With his work, Hawking helped in laying the foundation for unifying the remaining two forces of nature - gravity and quantum mechanics.
Similarity with Einstein
Like Einstein, Hawking was the celebrity public face of science. But unlike Einstein, Hawking had achieved all this in the grip of a severely debilitating disability. “Not since Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” says Dr Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New
Much like the Stephen Hawking hologram that was beamed during the movie Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the eerie timbre of his computergenerated voice activated by his cheek muscle - the only working muscle in his body - Hawking has transcended his human persona or envelope to appear almost disembodied.
As Dr Richard Feyman (1918 – 1988), an American physicist and fellow traveler in the realm of quantum physics, once observed: “Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. But those of us who aren’t that tall have to choose.” Hawking didn’t even have the luxury of choosing where to plant his feet. Hawking couldn’t move his tongue to speak and had to communicate using a voice programme on the computer attached to his wheelchair. Nor could he type. Instead, with the little motion left in his fingers, he had to painstakingly select his words from batches of options the computer would offer him.
Some may call him an example of the “supramental” human being, existing as pure mind, or pure spirit or both, depending on your point of view. With his increasingly harrowed and bundled up
body, slumped in a wheelchair, no doubt one of the most highly calibrated custom-made ones, and his brain able to create a template that would fit the “many histories” of what we call our universe, he would be said to embody the famous Hayavadana conundrum - it is the body or the mind that defines a human being?
At the age of 30, in a long and daunting calculation, Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes - those mythological avatars of cosmic doom weren’t really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation (Hawking radiation) and particles. And, finally explode and disappear over the eons.
Nobody, including Hawking, believed it at first, which particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.” Scientifically, Hawking will be best remembered for a discovery so strange it might be expressed in the form of a Zen koan: When is a black hole not black? When it explodes!
That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title Black Hole Explosion? is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.
The discovery of ‘Hawking radiation’ turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators or at least to recyclers and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange new direction. Dr Dennis Sciama, a cosmologist and
Shortly after his 21st birthday in 1963, doctors told him he had a particularly virulent form of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis’ (ALS), a neuromuscular wasting disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors gave him less than three years to live.
Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.” And, in 2002, Hawking said that he wanted the formula for ‘Hawking radiation’ to be engraved on his tombstone.
What is equally amazing is that Hawking had a career at all. Shortly after his 21st birthday in 1963, doctors told him he had a particularly virulent form of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis’ (ALS), a neuromuscular wasting disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors gave him less than three years to live. Many years later, Hawking was prone to announce through his synthesizer that he would probably have been consumed by “anomie”, the fabled 20th century malaise of being bored too much of the good life, if he hadn’t been diagnosed with his debilitating illness.
Over time, the disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements. Rapid changes in his physical condition were visible after he joined Cambridge; he would at times stumble while walking. But Hawking completed the PhD thesis and started further research.
He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them. That work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when he set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic
Hawking proved theoretically that the universe had to have originated with a Big Bang singularity when the known equations of physics break down. With Dr James Bardeen and Dr Brandon Carter, he noted that event horizons, the invisible surfaces of black holes, behave surprisingly like ordinary thermodynamic systems.
reality, to black holes.
With Dr Roger Penrose, Hawking proved theoretically that the universe had to have originated with a Big Bang singularity when the known equations of physics break down. With Dr James Bardeen and Dr Brandon Carter, he noted that event horizons, the invisible surfaces of black holes, behave surprisingly like ordinary thermodynamic systems. With Dr James Hartle, he calculated the probability that an expanding universe could spontaneously pop into existence from nothing.
With Dr Gary Gibbons, Hawking showed how spacetime itself could possess a temperature and entropy. With Dr George Ellis, he wrote a textbook in 1973 that even today remains our most masterful treatise on gravitation. But above all, Hawking is known for his monumental discovery that black holes are neither black nor holes.
The only time the legendary physicist-author visited India was in January 2001 during a String Conference. At a physicists’ banquet in Mumbai, where even as a crowd of awkward physicists stood meekly aside, Hawking zoomed onto the dance floor and whirled his wheelchair to the boisterous beat of A. R. Rahman-tuned,
Sukhwinder Singh – Sapna Awasthi sung “Chhaiya, Chhaiya …” number from Mani Ratnam’s 1998 blockbuster Dil Se.
Space was the final frontier that Stephen Hawking hoped to decode. He believed in the future of inter-galactic travel. Maybe, even a time when there would be no singularities of body and mind, and the soul, whatever we mean by that would be united with its essence.
Goodbye, great cosmologist–author. We know you’ll always be there in spacetime.
Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASAʼs 50th anniversary.
Hawking holding a public lecture at the Stockholm Waterfront congress centre, 24 August 2015
Hawking at NASAʼs StarChild Learning Center, 1980s.
Hawking with string theorists David Gross and Edward Witten at the 2001 Strings Conference, TIFR, India.
Investigating the cosmos.