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.

Alive - - Contents - ■ by M K Koul

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

York, US.

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?

Find­ings

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.

Ma­jor dis­cov­ery

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.

In In­dia

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.

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