Stephen Hawking Passes at 76

by Katelynn Fleming

The global scientific community is mourning the death of Stephen Hawking this week, a visionary physicist and inspiration to people in all walks of life. Dr. Hawking is well-known for his scientific prowess but also for his incredible resilience and adventurousness.

It is incredible that Stephen Hawking lived to old age, considering at age 21 he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and given a few years to live. ALS is a degenerative motor neuron disease that slowly degrades the neurons that control muscular motion and eventually resulting in death. In an interview with the New York Times in 2004 he said, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

There have been a lot of “bonuses” for Hawking. He married Jane Wilde, whom he met around the time of the ALS diagnosis, of whom he said, “This gave me something to live for.” Together they had three children. Partly to pay for his daughter’s education and partly to share his love for physics with other people who are not naturally inclined toward mathematics, he published A Brief History of Time, a conceptual book about the modern understanding of the universe. The bestseller surpassed 10 million copies sold and established him as a great communicator the likes of which is rarely seen in science fields. Professor Murawski of the Drew physics department commented, “Stephen Hawking, in my opinion, brought physics to the dinner table the same way Einstein did. In addition to being brilliant, he was a household name having appeared in The Simpsons, Star Trek and in a Pink Floyd song.”

In his undergraduate Oxford years, he claimed to share an “anti-work” attitude that was common with students there, but in his essay “Oxford and Cambridge” he said, “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do.” Contrary to his disability slowing him down, it was the factor that changed his outlook on life and pushed him to reach farther. He said, “I accept that there are some things I can’t do. But they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway. I seem to manage to do anything that I really want.” He was an advocate for pushing the limits of both human understanding and our own capabilities. Relating to disability he said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” Professor Murawski commented, “It should give us all hope that nothing can quell human curiosity.”

Hawking’s renown originated in several groundbreaking theories in black hole physics and grand unified theories. He taught at the University of Cambridge in England for many years and held the same position that Isaac Newton had held long before, but he also traveled widely and reached all seven continents. His early work focused on general relativity and the expanding universe. Along with Roger Penrose, he showed that if general relativity is correct, the universe must have been condensed to a singularity, a point of infinite mass and curvature of spacetime. The quirk in that theory is that at the singularity, time as we know it ends and general relativity breaks down, so there is no way to know what the universe was like until the instant when the big bang began. The pair also showed that stars of a certain mass which collapse under their own gravity will continue to collapse down to a singularity of infinite density. This phenomenon is a black hole.

Later in his career, he gained even more of a reputation for his work applying quantum effects to black holes. It was previously believed that any information that falls into a black hole is lost. However, that conflicts with the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy is always conserved in any thermodynamic processes, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy of a system always increases. Using Einstein’s master equation E=mc2 and the theory that energy can be converted to pairs of matter-antimatter pairs and vice versa, Hawking postulated that matter created from latent energy around the black hole could escape into the universe as a real particle if its antimatter pair were to be sucked in. The matter pairs that escaped would make it appear that the black hole is emitting matter. Thus, he stated that black holes are not as black as they seem but rather throw radiation like other very hot objects in space. This phenomena was aptly named Hawking Radiation. An exciting implication of this theory is that black holes would actually not grow indefinitely as they suck in matter but rather shrink as the absorbed antimatter particles annihilated with matter particles inside the black hole. Thus, a black hole could eventually evaporate or explode into energy, showing that black holes have a finite lifespan, just like other astronomical phenomena.

Unfortunately, the limitations of technology have prevented researchers from testing his theories so far, which means that he was never awarded a Nobel Prize, and there are few everyday applications of his work as of yet. However, the untestable is once again coming within reach as one objective of the new Event Horizon Telescope Program is to try to detect the results of Hawking Radiation around black holes.

In addition to his career, Hawking was also very passionate about space travel and believed strongly in colonization in space for long-term continuance of the human race. In 2007, he rode on a zero gravity flight that allowed him to experience weightlessness. He was scheduled for a flight in Virgin Galactic’s commercial spaceship, the VSS Unity, which he named. In a tribute article, the founder of Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson, commented, “I am so sorry we didn’t get him into space as he so dearly wished, but so thankful he was able to play such a meaningful role in the development of a new frontier he was so passionate about.” Sir Richard Branson summed it up well when he commented, “His was a life against the odds, lived to the full.”

Hawking was a firm believer that the human mind can comprehend the workings of the universe if we continue our research and discovery. He was adverse to imagining any limitations upon humanity’s ability to grow except our own tendencies to destroy each other and the environment. Consequently, he took no excuses for giving up in any area of life.  In the words of Professor Rosan of the Drew chemistry department, “He pushed the human race to be better than itself.”

Some fellow Drew students and RISE fellows discussed what they would remember about Hawking. Sam Coverdale (‘21) appreciated the humorous side of his personality which he showed in several television programs in which he made cameos. Dr. Eickmeyer admired his resilience, “Through all of his tribulations he retained a sense of humor and has many quotable quips. . . [such as] ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’” Meanwhile, Eva Wagenknechtova (‘21) recalled his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he played poker and philosophized with the android character Data and holograms of Einstein and Newton (click here to watch the clip), as well as a children’s book called George’s Secret Key to the Universe, which he wrote with his daughter Lucy. Kayla Rockhill (‘21) wrapped up his global impact when she stated, “his work and spirit will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone, not just those in the physics community.”

Since for much of his later life he could not use a pencil and relied on a 15 word per minute computer program and speech synthesizer to communicate, Hawking did the majority of his later work from inside the confines of his head, transporting his work to the world through students and assistants. It is no wonder that he captivated the imaginations of people all over the world. He inspired a documentary, A Brief History of Time, and a movie, The Theory of Everything, as well as multiple other books about his life. Professor Rosan wrote, “Through the efforts of his bold imagination he unveiled cosmic mysteries and brought the unfathomable grandeur of the universe closer to human understanding. And he showed us how rich can be the life of the mind.” 

Further reading of Hawking’s work:

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, by Stephen Hawking

Nature, “Black Hole Explosions”, by Stephen Hawking: the two page paper in which he explained and supported Hawking radiation

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