Sci­ence loses a ge­nius

Waikato Times - - Front Page -

BRI­TAIN: Ev­ery­one knew of Stephen Hawk­ing’s cos­mic bril­liance, but few could com­pre­hend it. Not even top-notch as­tronomers.

Hawk­ing, who died at his home in Cam­bridge, Eng­land, yes­ter­day at age 76, be­came the pub­lic face of sci­ence ge­nius. He ap­peared on Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion,

voiced him­self in The Simp­sons car­toon series and wrote the best seller A Brief His­tory of Time. He sold 9 mil­lion copies of that book, though many read­ers didn’t fin­ish it. It’s been called ‘‘the least-read best-seller ever.’’

In some ways, Hawk­ing was the in­her­i­tor of Al­bert Ein­stein’s man­tle of the ge­nius-as-celebrity.

‘‘His con­tri­bu­tion is to en­gage the pub­lic in a way that maybe hasn’t hap­pened since Ein­stein,’’ said prom­i­nent as­tronomer Wendy Freed­man, di­rec­tor of the Carnegie Ob­ser­va­to­ries. ‘‘He’s be­come an icon for a mind that is be­yond or­di­nary mor­tals. Peo­ple don’t ex­actly un­der­stand what he’s say­ing, but they know he’s bril­liant. There’s per­haps a hu­man el­e­ment of his strug­gle that makes peo­ple stop and pay at­ten­tion.’’

With Ein­stein, most peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with E=mc2, but they don’t know what it means. With Hawk­ing, his work was too com­pli­cated for most peo­ple, but they un­der­stood that what he was try­ing to fig­ure out was ba­sic, even pri­mal.

‘‘He was ask­ing and try­ing to ad­dress the very big­gest ques­tions we were try­ing to ask: the birth of the uni­verse, black holes, the di­rec­tion of time,’’ said Univer­sity of Chicago cos­mol­o­gist Michael Turner. ‘‘I think that caught peo­ple’s at­ten­tion.’’

And he did so in an imp­ish way, show­ing hu­man­ity de­spite be­ing con­fined to a wheel­chair with ALS, the de­gen­er­a­tive nerve dis­or­der known in the US as Lou

Gehrig’s dis­ease. He flew in a ze­ro­grav­ity plane. He made pub­lic bets with other sci­en­tists about the ex­is­tence of black holes and ra­di­a­tion that em­anates from them – los­ing both bets and buy­ing a sub­scrip­tion to Pent­house for one sci­en­tist and a base­ball en­cy­clopae­dia for the other.

‘‘The first thing that catches you is the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease and his wheel­chair,’’ Turner said. But then his mind and the ‘‘joy that he took in sci­ence’’ dom­i­nated. And while the pub­lic may not have un­der­stood what he said, they got his quest for big ideas.

Andy Fabian, an as­tronomer at Hawk­ing’s Univer­sity of Cam­bridge and pres­i­dent of the Royal Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety, said Hawk­ing would start his lay­man’s lec­tures on black holes with the joke: ‘‘I as­sume you all have read A Brief His­tory of

Time and un­der­stood it.’’ It al­ways got a big laugh. ‘‘You’d find the av­er­age as­tronomer such as my­self doesn’t even try to fol­low the more es­o­teric the­o­ries that (Hawk­ing) pur­sued the last 20 years. I’ve been to talks Hawk­ing has given and can­not fol­low them my­self.’’

Hawk­ing, who was born 300 years to the day af­ter Galileo died, was the Lu­casian Pro­fes­sor of Math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge. It was the same post that Isaac New­ton held. Both physi­cists and as­tro­physi­cists claimed him as their own. And much of Hawk­ing’s work was in the field of cos­mol­ogy, a deep-think­ing branch of as­tron­omy that tries to ex­plain the to­tal­ity of the uni­verse.

The big­ger story was how the pub­lic be­came fas­ci­nated with this small man, stuck in a wheel­chair with a wors­en­ing dis­ease, and an in­tel­lect that few could fathom. They re­lated to the man, Stephen Hawk­ing, and his story, Freed­man said. The in­sight he gave on the mys­ter­ies of the cos­mos was just a bonus. –

Stephen Hawk­ing

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