The theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who died recently, inspired us to look at the universe differently.
It is impossible to see Stephen Hawking, who passed away at time of writing, and not be amazed. Constrained physically to his wheelchair, he still managed to explore the infinite universe, seeking, as he explained, “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” The latter part of that sentence could just as well apply to him – diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neurone disease, at the age of 21 and given just two years to live, Hawking carried on with life instead, harnessing his formidable intellect to reshape modern cosmology and inspiring millions around the world by his example and insights.
He would go on to live another 55 years, formulating a series of radical discoveries that tested the limits of human understanding across time and space, from the origins of the universe and the possibility of time travel, to the mysteries of space’s allconsuming black holes. Elected at the young age of 32 to the Royal Society in 1974, Hawking became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics – one of the world’s most distinguished academic positions – at University of Cambridge five years later, joining a scientific pantheon that include Isaac Newton, Joseph Larmor, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac.
Hawking held the chair for 30 years, during which time he transcended the academic world and slipped into pop culture, making appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons, and writing the most unlikely bestseller ever, A Brief History of Time. He also, more recently, had the unique distinction of having been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Reddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for playing Hawking in The Theory of Everything) on TV and film, respectively.
More than just a man who personified the boundless possibilities of the human mind, Hawking is also remember for his wicked sense of humour and lack of hesitation in admitting he had made a mistake – he was, in fact, well known for making bets about his theories.
While he won numerous awards, including the Albert Einstein award, the Wolf prize, the Copley medal and the Fundamental Physics prize, he never won the Nobel prize, but only because no one has yet to prove the accuracy of his theories. As yet, we still don’t have the technology to verify his biggest ideas. Hawking once said: “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”. For the rest of humanity, as we seek understanding of the universe and, by extension, life itself, Stephen Hawking will remain a guiding light for generations to come, pointing us to the stars and inspiring us to open our minds to them. Bonus, indeed.