This morning, on the Albert Einstein’s birthday, the world lost one of its great minds:
Stephen W. Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity, died early Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for Cambridge University.
“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said in an interview.
In 1963, as a young and, by his own admission, somewhat disengaged graduate student, Hawking developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was given two years to live. At first, he sunk into a depression. But then he went on with his graduate studies, married his girlfriend and managed to defy the odds by living another 55 years, fathering three children and shattering our understanding of the universe.
[His] work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when Dr. Hawking set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic reality, to black holes. In a long and daunting calculation, Dr. Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.
Nobody, including Dr. Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”
That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?,” is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.
The discovery of Hawking radiation, as it is known, turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction.
The NYT piece is worth your time as it is very thorough. Hawking’s health had been in decline and many were preparing for this day. The Eddie Redmayne movie — The Theory of Everything — is a bit Oscar-baity but worth watching as well. But what’s really worth your time is reading his books and learning about his theories of black holes, cosmology and the universe itself.
One of the great challenges left in physics is uniting two of our most elegant theories — Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity — into a combined whole, what has been dubbed “The Theory of Everything”. We aren’t there yet. But Hawking was one of those who pushed us in that direction and began to figure out what happens when those theories interact. Hawking radiation — the evaporation of black holes — was the major prediction of his work. Hawking radiation has never been observed — astronomical black holes are far too large to emit much of it. But there is hope that one of the particle colliders could witness the creation and destruction of a micro black hole.
If that were his only contribution, it would be enough. But Hawking also came up with the idea that there is no beginning or end of the universe; that time itself was created in the Big Bang. And he was engaged in furious debates about cosmology, black holes, gravity and even eschatology right up until his death.
Hawking was known to be stubborn. But he could admit when we was wrong. He hypothesized that information was destroyed in the creation of a black hole, a concept he later conceded was wrong. He also predicted that the Higgs Boson would never be found, then conceded when it was.
(I never met Hawking, unfortunately. I did once have a girlfriend who spent a semester at Cambridge. When I asked if she’d met him, she said, “Well, sort of. He almost ran me over with his wheelchair.”)
Hawking was part of the lineage of great astrophysicists — a lineage that comes from Ptlomey down through Newton to Einstein. He was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, a lineage that includes Dirac, Babbage and Newton. But he was also part of a new lineage of great science communicators — someone who could take complex mind-bending subjects and bring them to the general public, a lineage includes Sagan and Tyson. In the 1980’s, copies his Brief History of Time were to be found on almost every coffee table in America (albeit sometimes in pristine condition). He made guest appearances on The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory. In 2009, he held a party for time travelers but only advertised it after the fact, to prove that time travel was impossible and no one would show up for it. The quote above from Michio Kaku is exactly right: no scientist since Einstein has been as famous. Hawking’s passing is sad, but he lived to be 76, far longer than expected, and enjoyed as good a life as he could.
The engines that grind the universe are vast and complicated and operate in realms of physics far beyond anything human beings experience. That we can even glimpse their operation is one of the great miracles of the modern age. Hawking, confined to his wheelchair, shined a light into those engines as powerful as anyone ever has. We are a wiser species because of him.
Requiescat in pace.
Image by lwpkommunikacio