On March 14, 2018, one of the greatest and most well-known physicists of our time, Stephen Hawking, passed away. This article is a tribute to all that he accomplished. It is meagre in comparison to what he has contributed to the expanse of scientific knowledge but it is my way of keeping his memory alive in the KIS community.
Stephen Hawking was born, on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England, to an incredibly intellectual family. He even described his family as being eccentric. For instance, their dinners used to be a silent affair, each one of them with a book in hand.
He studied at St. Albans School where he was considered to be a bright student but was by no means at the top of his class. In terms of grades and ranks, he was never higher than halfway up the class list.
Hawking enjoyed activities outside of schoolwork. He loved board games, but when he got bored of Monopoly, he invented tonnes more, some so complex that it could take hours to work out what a roll of the dice meant.
His father wanted Hawking to study medicine but he had always been interested in mathematics and was drawn to the universe above.
Education at Oxford and Cambridge
That’s right. He went to both of those prestigious universities.
Hawking attended Oxford University for his undergraduate years, studying cosmology. He claimed to have spent only 1,000 hours studying over three years yet still managed to graduate with the highest honours.
Hawking thought he was seen as a very difficult student. That’s why when he was on the borderline of a first- and second-class degree, he told the examiners that if they awarded him the first, he would pursue a PhD at Cambridge; the second, and he threatened to stay at Oxford. He was awarded a first-class degree.
Interpret that any way you want.
True to his word, Hawking pursued a PhD at Cambridge University earning it in 1966, three years after being diagnosed with a rare form of ALS.
At the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease, aka, ALS. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease. In very general terms, the disease affects nerve cells and causes them to lose control of muscle movement. People diagnosed with this disease are often paralysed and lose the ability to speak, eat, and even breathe.
Hawking was told that he would only live for two years but he surpassed everyone’s expectations and made it to 76 years. He lost the ability to speak when he caught pneumonia on a trip to CERN, Geneva in 1985 and the doctors performed a tracheotomy. You can click here to learn how his speech-generating device worked.
Stephen Hawking married Jane Wilde in 1965 (two years after being diagnosed). The couple had three children — Robert, Lucy and Timothy. He wrote a book series for children with his daughter Lucy, the first of which is called George’s Secret Key to the Universe. It was one of my favourite books when I was in Grade 4 and is a neat combination of fiction and Hawking’s research.
Moving on, Hawking and Wilde split up in 1991. Wilde said that Hawking was making too many demands on her, and refused to discuss his illness, among other things, which eventually degraded their marriage. Hawking married his nurse, Elaine Mason a few years later. Their marriage lasted for eleven years.
This is perhaps the bit you’re most keen on reading. Stephen Hawking did a LOT of research on black holes and was continuously seeking a “theory of everything”. I’ll do my best to sum up his research.
Note: I’m not a physics student or anything of that sort. If you notice any glaring mistakes, please leave a comment below and I’ll fix it up.
According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, huge bodies like the sun create a distortion in space-time, causing it to curve around them.
So a large enough object could, theoretically, have such an intense gravitational field that it collapses into a singularity, thus, becoming a black hole. A singularity is essentially a lot of matter squished into a tiny space with an infinite density. Black holes have such a strong gravitational pull that nothing, not even light, can escape it.
One reason that Hawking was so renowned was that he managed to unite two branches of physics which had never been linked before: quantum theory and general relativity. The first is very good at explaining nature at a minuscule level — particles like photons, electrons and all that. The latter focuses more on the grandiose nature of things — galaxies, planets, stars and the like. (More on that debate here.)
According to quantum theory, a vacuum is filled with pairs of particles which seemingly come out of nowhere — one made of matter, the other of antimatter. Furthermore, one has positive energy while the other has negative energy so they cancel each other out.
When these particles are created at the edge of a black hole, and the negative energy particle is swallowed, the overall energy of the black hole decreases. The other particle (the positive energy one) shoots out into space, carrying its positive energy away with it. These escaping particles are, aptly named, Hawking radiation.
Thus, a black hole will slowly but surely get smaller and smaller, at the same time getting hotter and hotter until it finally explodes leaving nothing. How does this connect to the grand scheme of things?
Hawking and another physicist, Roger Penrose, proposed that the beginning of the universe was like a black hole in reverse; that there was a big bang, followed by a singularity from which everything began.
Stephen Hawking wrote many books about his research in layman’s language. His book, A Brief History in Time, was what catapulted him to stardom. More than 10 million copies were sold and it was translated into more than forty languages.
Other books he wrote include:
- A Briefer History of Time
- The Grand Design
- My Brief History
- The Universe in a Nutshell
Awards and Still More Accomplishments
Around 1970, Hawking was given the post of Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position held by notable scientists such as Isaac Newton. He held the post for thirty years before retiring in 2009.
Hawking had also been the recipient of countless awards including:
- Maxwell Medal and Prize
- Albert Einstein award
- Dirac Medal
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
(There are LOADS more.)
A Pop-Culture Icon
Stephen Hawking had numerous guest appearances on TV shows including The Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, and The Simpsons. There have also been several films made about him, the most recent being The Theory of Everything.
Here’s a fun clip from The Big Bang Theory:
Stephen Hawking was truly a force to be reckoned with and he powered through till the end. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it is that he has immortalised himself into our knowledge of physics and the universe around us, and he will be missed.
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