Re­mem­ber­ing Stephen HAWK­ING 08.01.1942 – 14.03.2018

One of mod­ern cos­mol­ogy’s most bril­liant minds and sharpest wits passed away in March. Paul Suther­land looks back at the life of Stephen Hawk­ing

Sky at Night Magazine - - STEPHEN HAWKING -

Stephen Hawk­ing’s death on 14 March, aged 76, robbed the world of one of its most recog­nis­able sci­en­tists. His ge­nius was com­pared to the likes of Isaac New­ton and Al­bert Ein­stein, and though a cruel ill­ness con­fined him to a mo­torised wheel­chair for most of his life, his bril­liant mind took him to the far­thest reaches of the Uni­verse.

Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing was born in Ox­ford on 8 Jan­uary 1942, the 300th an­niver­sary of Galileo’s death. He was the el­dest of four. Fa­ther Frank was an ex­pert in trop­i­cal dis­eases and, like mother Iso­bel, a for­mer stu­dent at Ox­ford. Hawk­ing showed an early in­ter­est in astron­omy and was en­cour­aged by Iso­bel to look at the stars from their gar­den. The fam­ily moved to St Al­bans when Hawk­ing was eight. He was rather laid back at school, but won a place at Univer­sity Col­lege, Ox­ford, at 17, achiev­ing a First Class Hon­ours de­gree in Nat­u­ral Science.

Hawk­ing moved on to the Depart­ment of Ap­plied Math­e­mat­ics and The­o­ret­i­cal Physics at Cam­bridge in 1962 to pur­sue a PhD in cos­mol­ogy. He had hoped to study un­der the leg­endary Fred Hoyle, but had to set­tle for a less well-known su­per­vi­sor, Den­nis Sciama. This was prob­a­bly for­tu­nate be­cause, whereas Hoyle was rather fix­ated on the no­tion of a Uni­verse that had al­ways been around, Sciama en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­ported new ideas in cos­mol­ogy. A long-run­ning de­bate over how the Uni­verse be­gan was favour­ing the con­cept of a Big Bang – a name coined by Hoyle in an in­ter­view as a term of de­ri­sion – and there was grow­ing in­ter­est in the ex­is­tence of black holes.

Hawk­ing was fas­ci­nated by the idea of black holes, known as sin­gu­lar­i­ties back then. He saw the Big Bang as be­ing like a sin­gu­lar­ity in re­verse. Whereas any­thing that fell into a black hole es­sen­tially dis­ap­peared, the whole of space and time had sprung spon­ta­neously into ex­is­tence.

Ex­pand­ing the uni­verse

By this time Hawk­ing had no­ticed in­creas­ing prob­lems with his health, in­clud­ing oc­ca­sional falls and slur­ring of speech. In 1963, aged 21, he was di­ag­nosed as suf­fer­ing from amy­otrophic lateral scle­ro­sis, a form of mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease that re­moves mus­cu­lar con­trol.

For­tu­nately the dis­ease did not di­min­ish the mind. Hawk­ing over­came ini­tial de­pres­sion and threw him­self into his work. And though some had feared he would not live long enough to com­plete his PhD, he con­founded them by sur­viv­ing a fur­ther 55 years.

Hawk­ing achieved his PhD in 1965 with his the­sis Prop­er­ties of Ex­pand­ing Uni­verses, ex­am­in­ing how gal­ax­ies and black holes form and evolve. The Univer­sity of Cam­bridge made it freely

avail­able to down­load in 2017. De­mand was so great, it brought down the server. Hawk­ing pub­lished his first aca­demic book, The

Large Scale Struc­ture of Space-Time, with col­league Ge­orge El­lis in 1973. One of its ma­jor points was that the area of a black hole’s event hori­zon, be­yond which ev­ery­thing was for­ever lost, could never de­crease in size. A year later, aged just 32, he was elected a Fel­low of the Royal Society. And in 1979 he be­came Lu­casian Pro­fes­sor of Math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge, a post held by New­ton.

Hawk­ing was show­ing grow­ing in­ter­est in the very small as well as the as­tro­nom­i­cally large, turn­ing his at­ten­tion to the science of atomic par­ti­cles, or quan­tum the­ory, and how it re­lated to the Uni­verse. It led to his most fa­mous dis­cov­ery, that black holes leak en­ergy back into space and will even­tu­ally evap­o­rate.

The nat­u­ral order of the Uni­verse is to be­come more chaotic, a phe­nom­e­non called en­tropy. If mat­ter fall­ing into a black hole took its en­tropy with it, that would vi­o­late the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, which says that the to­tal en­tropy in the Uni­verse al­ways in­creases.

A young Amer­i­can sci­en­tist, Ja­cob Beken­stein, sug­gested that the black hole’s grow­ing event hori­zon might hold on to the en­tropy that ap­peared lost. Hawk­ing set out to prove the idea wrong, but in­stead, in 1974, showed math­e­mat­i­cally how it hap­pens. He re­alised that as one par­ti­cle dis­ap­peared into a black hole, an­other must es­cape from its edge. This be­came known as Hawk­ing ra­di­a­tion. The force would be so small as to be un­de­tectable in black holes ob­served across the cos­mos. But Hawk­ing be­lieved that the Big Bang it­self pro­duced tiny black holes, smaller than atoms, that each ex­ploded with the force of a mil­lion hy­dro­gen bombs.

Hawk­ing also changed his opin­ion on an­other chal­leng­ing prob­lem, namely what hap­pens to all the in­for­ma­tion that falls into a black hole once it evap­o­rates away. In 1976 he ar­gued that the in­for­ma­tion was for­ever lost, even though quan­tum me­chan­ics did not al­low for that. But in 2004 he ad­mit­ted he was wrong.

Fol­low­ing map­ping of back­ground ra­di­a­tion from the Big Bang by the Cos­mic Back­ground Ex­plorer satel­lite, COBE, in 1992, Hawk­ing said it showed fluc­tu­a­tions from slight ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the Uni­verse that caused re­gions to collapse to form stars and gal­ax­ies. Other fields of in­ter­est in­cluded the pos­si­bil­ity that black holes might be the seeds of other, baby uni­verses. And in an idea straight out of Doc­tor Who, he sug­gested that worm­holes in the space-time con­tin­uum could pro­vide short cuts across the Uni­verse.

A defin­ing voice

All the while that Hawk­ing was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mys­ter­ies of the Uni­verse, he was fac­ing more per­sonal chal­lenges. Af­ter con­tract­ing pneu­mo­nia in 1987, he un­der­went a tra­cheotomy and lost his al­ready lim­ited abil­ity to speak. A speech syn­the­siser gave him the ro­botic voice that would be­come syn­ony­mous with him. At first he could op­er­ate it with his hand, but even­tu­ally only with a twitch of his cheek, mak­ing it a slow and te­dious process.

“He be­lieved the Big Bang cre­ated sub-atomic black holes that ex­ploded with the force of a mil­lion hy­dro­gen bombs”

De­spite ad­vances in speech syn­the­sis, he stuck with the orig­i­nal voice that be­came his trade­mark.

Hawk­ing had mar­ried fam­ily friend Jane Wilde in 1965, and they had three chil­dren, Robert, Lucy and Ti­mothy. The cou­ple di­vorced in 1995 and Hawk­ing mar­ried one of his nurses, Elaine Ma­son. That re­la­tion­ship ended in 2006 af­ter which Hawk­ing grew close to Jane again.

Hawk­ing had a great sense of fun, and those who met him re­marked on the twin­kle in his eye. By all ac­counts he loved to party, and his lec­tures – many view­able on­line – are laced with jokes.

Hawk­ing was awarded the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom by Barack Obama in 2009. He used his sta­tus to shine a light on wider is­sues than cos­mol­ogy, urg­ing hu­man­ity to move swiftly to colonise other worlds be­fore catas­tro­phe struck our own. And in 2014, he warned of the rise of the ro­bots, say­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence could spell the end of the hu­man race.

The pro­fes­sor also feared that alert­ing alien races to our pres­ence could end badly for us. But in 2016 he was a lead­ing sup­porter of Break­through Starshot’s plan to send a fleet of tiny space­craft to Al­pha Cen­tauri to search for hab­it­able plan­ets. On more down-to-earth is­sues, he cham­pi­oned the Na­tional Health Ser­vice.

Hawk­ing had been a phys­i­cally ac­tive youth, and a row­ing coxswain at Ox­ford. De­spite his ill­ness he never lost his sense of ad­ven­ture. He trav­elled the world and was of­fered a sub-or­bital flight by Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic af­ter he told of his de­sire to go into space. While he never achieved space­flight, he did ex­pe­ri­ence weight­less­ness in 2007 on a par­a­bolic flight with the Zero-G Cor­po­ra­tion.

Per­haps Hawk­ing’s great­est proof was that phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity need not ham­per a full and suc­cess­ful life. His achieve­ments will en­sure his name lives on.

Hawking mar­ried Jane Wilde in St Al­bans in 1965. “We didn’t know how long Stephen was go­ing to live,” Jane later re­called

Cam­bridge stu­dents claimed Hawking could be a men­ace on cam­pus with his wheel­chair. He even joked him­self about be­ing a bad driver

Physi­cist, wit, au­thor, oc­ca­sional Trans­former and gen­eral ge­nius, Stephen Hawking not only rewrote the science books, but also helped break down prej­u­dices about dis­abil­ity Hawking coxed at Ox­ford, but his dare­devil steer­ing led to the boat of­ten...

Barack Obama chats with Hawking and his daugh­ter Lucy be­fore pre­sent­ing him with his Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Freedom in Au­gust 2009

“I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come,” said Hawking af­ter his Zero-G flight in 2007

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