Stephen Hawking: A Tribute

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Dr. S. S. VERMA

Department of Physics, S.L.I.E.T., Longowal, Punjab

 Being of Prof Stephan Hawking in the news has always attracted the attention of scientific community in particular and common people, in general, to learn about his ideas/knowledge not only on science and technology but also on general aspects of life. Sharing of this article on Stephan Hawking with readers is a tribute from a person associated to science (Physics) to a man in his own words, “Hello, my name is Stephan Hawking-physicist, cosmologist and something of a dreamer. Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind, I am free.”

World famous British scientist Stephen Hawking, modern cosmology’s brightest star known for his groundbreaking work with black holes and relativity, died on 13.03.2018 (Wednesday) at his home in Cambridge aged 76. Scientific fraternity along with others will always miss Prof Hawking for his courage and persistence with brilliance.

 

An inspiration

It may come as a shock to learn that Hawking was a slacker when it came to his school studies. In fact, when he was nine years old, his grades ranked among the worst in his class. With a little more effort, he brought those grades up to about average, but not much better. Nevertheless, from an early age he was interested in how stuff worked. He has talked about how he was known to disassemble clocks and radios. However, he admits he wasn’t very good at putting them back together so they could work again. Despite his poor grades, both his teachers and his peers seemed to understand that they had a future genius among them, evidenced by the fact that his nickname was “Einstein.” The problem with his mediocre grades was that his father wanted to send him to Oxford, but didn’t have the money without a scholarship. Luckily, when it came time for the scholarship exams, he aced them, getting an almost perfect score on the physics exam. Hawking’s father always wanted his son to study medicine, but he was more inclined towards mathematics from childhood days. But, for all his interest in science, Stephen didn’t care for biology. He has said that he found it to be “too inexact, too descriptive”. He would have rather devoted his mind to more precise, well-defined concepts. One problem, however, was that Oxford didn’t have mathematics as a major. The compromise was that Stephen would attend Oxford and major in physics.

 

In fact, even within physics, he focused on the bigger questions. When faced with deciding between the two tracks of particle physics, which studies the behaviour of subatomic particles, versus cosmology, which studies the large universe as a whole, he chose the latter. Biographer Kristine Larsen writes about how Hawking faced isolation and unhappiness during his first year or so at Oxford. The thing that seems to have drawn him out of this funk was joining the rowing team. Even before being diagnosed with the illness that would eventually render him almost completely paralyzed, Hawking didn’t have what one would call a large or athletic build. However, row teams recruited smaller men like Hawking to be coxswains — a position that does not row, but rather controls steering and stroke rate. Because rowing was so important and competitive at Oxford, Hawking’s role on the team made him very popular. However, rigorous practice sessions affected his studies, and some times even Hawking used “creative analysis to create lab reports.” As a graduate student, Hawking first started showing symptoms of general clumsiness. His family became concerned when he was home during his Christmas break from school and they insisted he see a doctor.  He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a neurological disease that causes patients to lose control of their voluntary muscles. He was told he’d probably only have a few years to live. Hawking remembers being shocked and wondering why this happened to him. However, seeing a boy dying of leukemia in the hospital made him realize that there were others worse off than him. Hawking became more optimistic and started dating Jane. They were soon engaged, and he cites their engagement as giving him “something to live for”.   Hawking went on to study at Cambridge and became one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein. Prof Hawking was a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. He was known for his work on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation. His books A Brief History of TimeThe Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design have been bestsellers.

 

Becoming of a scientist

Hawking was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. Hawking’s first major breakthrough came in 1970, when he and Roger Penrose applied the mathematics of black holes to the entire universe and showed that a singularity, a region of infinite curvature in spacetime, lay in our distant past: the point from which came the Big Bang. Hawking’s seminal contributions continued through the 1980s. The theory of cosmic inflation holds that the fledgling universe went through a period of terrific expansion. In 1982, Hawking was among the first to show how quantum fluctuations — tiny variations in the distribution of matter — might give rise through inflation to the spread of galaxies in the universe. But it was A Brief History of Time that rocketed Hawking to stardom. Published for the first time in 1988, the title made the Guinness Book of Records after it stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks. It sold 10 million copies and was translated into 40 different languages.

 

One of Hawking’s major achievements was to come up with the theory that the universe has no boundaries in 1983. In 1983, the effort to understand the nature and shape of the universe, Hawking and Hartle combined the concepts of quantum mechanics (the study of the behaviour of microscopic particles) with general relativity (Einstein’s theories about gravity and how mass curves space) to show that the universe is a contained entity and yet has no boundaries, the report notes. In 2004, Hawking admitted he had been wrong and conceded a bet he made in 1997 with a fellow scientist about black holes. Hawking had said at the time that information is lost in the black hole that eventually evaporates. The problem was that this idea that information is lost conflicted with the rules of quantum mechanics, creating what Hawking called an “information paradox.” American theoretical physicist John Preskill disagreed with this conclusion that information is lost in black hole. In 1997, he made a bet with Hawking saying that information can escape from them, thus not breaking the laws of quantum mechanics. Hawking is such a good sport that he can admit when he’s wrong — which he did in 2004. While giving a lecture at a scientific conference, he said that because black holes have more than one “topology,” and when one measure all the information released from all topologies, information isn’t lost.

 

Awards and distinctions

In his long career in physics, Hawking had racked up an incredibly impressive array of awards and distinctions. In 1974, he was inducted into the Royal Society (the royal academy of science in Britain, dating back to 1660), and a year later, Pope Paul VI awarded him and Roger Penrose the Pius XI Gold Medal for Science. He also went on to receive the Albert Einstein Award and Hughes Medal from the Royal Society, the report notes. Hawking had so well established himself in the academic world by 1979 that he attained the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England — a position he would keep for the next 30 years. The chair dates all the way back to 1663, and the second person to hold it was none other than Sir Isaac Newton, the report notes. In the 1980s, he was invested as a Commander of the British Empire, which is a rank in the UK just under being knighted. He also became a Companion of Honour, which is another distinction given in recognition of national service. There can no more than 65 members of the order at one time. In 2009, Hawking was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honour of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All the while, Hawking attained at least 12 honorary degrees. The world famous physicist and cosmologist was the subject of the 2014 film ‘The Theory of Everything’, which starred Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

 

A philosopher

His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21. I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. He said “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark”. Hawking rejected the notion of life beyond death and emphasized the need to fulfill our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives. In answer to a question on how we should live, he said, simply: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.” While answering another question, he spoke of the beauty of science, such as the exquisite double helix of DNA in biology, or the fundamental equations of physics. According to Hawking, science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in. Hawking suggests that with modern space-based instruments, such as the European Space Agency’s Planck mission, it may be possible to spot ancient fingerprints in the light left over from the earliest moments of the universe and work out how our own place in space came to be.

 

Some other attributes of Hawking’s thoughts

  • Hawking also authored children’s books. In 2007, Stephen and his daughter, Lucy Hawking, collaborated to write ‘George’s Secret Key to the Universe.’ The book is a fiction story about a young boy, George, who rebels against his parents’ aversion to technology. He begins to befriend neighbours, one of whom is a physicist with a computer. This turns out to be most powerful computer in the world, which offers portals to see and enter into outer space.

 

  • Hawking believed in the possibility of alien life. During NASA’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, Hawking was invited to speak, and he mentioned his thoughts on the subject of possibility if alien life. He expressed that, given the vastness of the universe, there very well could be primitive alien life out there, and it is possible, other intelligent life. He went on the say that humans should be wary of exposure to aliens because alien life will probably not be DNA-based, and we would not have resistance to diseases, the report points out.

 

  • Hawking’s ‘zero gravity’ flight to save human race. In 2007, Hawking got to take the ride of a lifetime. He was able to experience zero-gravity and float out of his wheelchair thanks to Zero Gravity Corp. Hawking, free from his wheelchair for the first time in four decades, was even able to perform gymnastic flips. Hawking also has booked a seat with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to ride on a sub-orbital flight. But perhaps most interesting about this is not what he was able to do, but why he did it. Due to the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, Hawking has said that the future of the human race, if it is going to have a long one, will be in outer space. He supported private space exploration in hopes that space tourism will become affordable for the public. He hoped that we can travel to other planets to use their resources to survive.

 

Some Hawking quotes

  • It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love
  • There is nothing beyond the moment when the brain flickers for the final time.
  • However bad life may seem — while there is life— there is hope
  • Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole donot give up-there is a way out.
  • However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you do not just give up.
  • Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.
  • Quiet people have the loudest minds
  • One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply does not exist— without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.
  • The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.
  • We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.
  • The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.

 

Personal Life

Hawking’s wife is Jane Wilde and children are Lucy, Robert and Tim. A theoretical physicist, cosmologist, scientist, author and teacher, Hawking was also tremendously admired for how he tackled a rare early onset of ALS. He did not not let the disease stop him from his work, travels or rob him of his humour and zeal for life itself. Hawking will not only be remembered for his contributions to science, but also for the way he taught the rest of us to live. As the world bids adieu to the great mind, we take comfort in his many inspiring words that will live with us forever.

 

Acknowledgment: The use of information retrieved through various references/sources of the internet in this article is highly acknowledged.

 

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