Hawking’s stellar sendoff
LONDON The universe that Stephen Hawking spent a lifetime studying now knows his voice.
The renowned British physicist, who died in March, having battled debilitating degenerative motor neuron disease for decades, was remembered at a memorial service yesterday at Westminster Abbey. His ashes were buried between Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and later covered with a gravestone – etched with an equation he used to teach the world about black holes.
At the same time his ashes were lowered into the ground, his voice was beamed from Earth towards the nearest known black hole in the universe, thousands of light years away.
It was a ‘‘symbolic gesture’’, his loved ones said, that finally let him travel into space.
Family members, friends, fellow scientists and celebrities gathered at the service to celebrate Hawking’s life and the legacy he left behind.
Hawking’s ashes were interred in the Scientists’ Corner in the abbey and then, fittingly, covered with a gravestone etched with the equation he used to theorise that black holes are not completely black but faintly leak thermal radiation, accompanied by a depiction of a black hole.
During the ceremony, Hawking’s voice was being beamed into the cosmos.
Greek composer Vangelis – most famous for his Academy Award-winning score to Chariots of Fire – set Hawking’s voice to an original piece of music, which was sent into space through a massive antenna at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ground station in Spain.
‘‘Around the time that our father was laid to rest, the Vangelis composition with our father’s voice was broadcast into space,’’ Hawking’s daughter, Lucy Hawking, said in a statement by the space agency. ‘‘This is a beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father’s presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.’’
Vangelis said in a statement posted on Hawking’s website that he created the piece to ‘‘pay tribute and express my high esteem and respect to this extraordinary man’’.
‘‘I imagine he will continue to travel with the same devotion, wherever he may be, in the known unknown. Farewell, Professor Hawking.’’
It is unclear what Hawking said in the recording, but CDs were created for those who attended the memorial service.
The ESA said the ceremonial broadcast was beamed towards 1A 0620-00, a binary star system that includes a stellar-mass black hole, about 3500 light years from Earth.
‘‘It is fascinating and at the same time moving to imagine that Stephen Hawking’s voice together with the music by Vangelis will reach the black hole in about 3500 years, where it will be frozen in by the event horizon,’’ said the agency’s director of science, Gunther Hasinger.
Hawking, who was said to be perhaps the greatest scientist of his generation, died at age 76 in March at his home in Cambridge, where he had lived and worked for decades.
Hawking is most notably remembered for his theory that black holes ‘‘can emanate thermal radiation from subatomic processes at their boundary’’ – which is known as ‘‘Hawking radiation.’’
This revelation impressed other scientists with the way it took Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which is essential for understanding the gravity of black holes, and connected it to newer theories of quantum mechanics, which cover subatomic processes.
He also hypothesised that miniature black holes, remnants of the Big Bang, may be strewn through space, though he noted that they had not yet been discovered. ‘‘This is a pity, because if they had, I would have got a Nobel Prize,’’ he joked.
When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at age 22, he was given only a few years to live.
He went on to conduct groundbreaking research into black holes and the origins of the universe, and gained global fame as a populariser and communicator of science.
His book A Brief History of Time sold nine million copies – even if many readers didn’t finish it – and he appeared on AP, GETTY Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons.
‘‘His name will live in the annals of science,’’ Astronomer Royal Martin Rees told the memorial service.
‘‘Nobody else since Einstein has done more to deepen our understanding of space and time. Millions have had their horizons widened by his books and lectures, and even more worldwide have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds.’’
The service included Bible readings by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Hawking in a BBC drama, and Lucy Hawking. British astronaut Tim Peake read from Queen Mab by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which evokes the wonders of the universe. Washington Post, AP
Lucy Hawking lays flowers as the ashes of her father, Professor Stephen Hawking, are laid to rest between the graves of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey during his memorial service. At the same time, his voice was beamed towards the...