Stephen Hawking: A man amongst the stars


Chris Bell

In 1963, a bright young Oxford man was diagnosed out of the blue with ALS, a debilitating disease that typically leaves a victim with less than two years to live.

But this man did not succumb to the deathly illness; instead, through astonishing resilience, he lived for another half-century, and became one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.

Legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died early morning on March 14th in his Cambridge home at 76. When he was diagnosed at 21 with  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare motor-neurone disease., Hawking was given two years to live. His outlier of a case left him alive for another 55 years to continue his research and discovery in the science world. Hawking’s work on theoretical physics earned him countless accolades, and made him a crucial voice in comprehending our universe.

“He did a lot of things,” says iSchool Physics teacher Mr. Smolka. “His thing was trying to create a formula to describe the creation of everything in the universe. The universe runs on math, so there’s this theory that everything down to the molecular level is completely pre-determined, which is what he really tied his work to, especially in the realm of gravity.”

The idea of gravity is that it causes space and time to curve around these massive celestial bodies such as the earth, the moon, and the sun. This contortion of space and time is what creates our orbits; what holds earth revolving around the sun. The notion is that a large enough object, such as a red dwarf star, can collapse under its own gravity. All the mass shrinks into an infinitesimally small point of infinite density, called a singularity. With so much mass squeezed into such a tight space, it drastically warps the space and time around it, dragging all nearby material into its cold, dark grasp, and thus the genesis of the black hole.

Hawking’s theory on black holes was first introduced in the 1960s when he collaborated with fellow physicist Roger Penrose. Our original understanding of these phenomena was that everything crossing the boundary of a black hole, also known as its “event horizon,” is lost forever and dematerialized from the ether. Even light can’t escape it, which is why black holes are called black holes.

But in 1974, when Hawking took into account the quantum mechanics of light, he discovered a phenomenon that when a particle pair breaks off into the black hole, the negative energy of the antiparticle will subtract mass from the hole, causing it to shrink, and that the complementary particle will escape the black hole in the form of electromagnetic radiation (eventually christened ‘Hawking Radiation’ by scientists). Although this brought forth many new lines of questioning about our universe, it was a revolutionary discovery, dispelling an idea in science long thought to be incontrovertibly true and fact. It suggests that eventually, even black holes can cease to exist, and the possibility of things being able to escape its clutches isn’t too far gone.

“Things can get out of a black hole,” Hawking once said at a public lecture in Stockholm, “So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up — there’s a way out.”

Alongside his astronomical impact on the world of physics, Hawking also made an impressive accomplishment in presenting subversive science to mainstream culture through his world-renowned literature. When Hawking published his first piece, A Brief History of Time, in 1988, the idea that a book about cosmology (including topics such as elementary particles and the unification of physics) could become a widespread bestseller was a long shot at best. And yet, it did, and sold over 10 million copies in 20 years.

What sets A Brief History of Time apart from other texts on cosmology is, according to the New York Times Book Review, that it gives readers “a jaunty overview of key cosmological ideas, past and present” and is at its best when Hawking “allows us a peek at his impish humor, inner motivations, theoretical goofs and scientific prejudices.” By instilling his own idiosyncrasy into what previously had been staid accounts of ancient theories, “Mr. Hawking is bravely taking some of the first, though tentative, steps toward quantizing the early universe, and he offers us a provocative glimpse of the work in progress.”

Whether he was showing us that black holes are not the eternal prison they were made out to be, or that mainstream culture could embrace the mystical sciences behind the universe, Hawking had a way of making seemingly impossible things connect.

Stephen Hawking will be taking his place alongside some of the great scientists inside of Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.