by Prasad Ganti
Dr. Stephen Hawking, world’s most famous contemporary physicist, passed away recently. He belongs to the pantheon of legends like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He contributed significantly to our increased understanding of the Universe. Having read about Newton and Einstein who lived in earlier eras, he is the first living physicist who impressed me to no end.
I first heard about him in the 1980s due to his popular book “A Brief History Of Time”. He had a knack of communicating with wider audiences. He popularized science while still being very much involved with serious research. He mentioned in the book that his publisher warned him that each equation he wrote in the book would diminish the sales. Eventually, it proved to be a best seller. Neither too shallow nor too technical. I loved the book and had a great first impression of him.
While still in college, he developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurological disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, made famous by Lou Gehrig, the baseball legend who suffered from its debilitating effects. This disease has been known since the 1870’s through the pioneering neurological work of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris. This crippling disease destroys all motor movements of the limbs. Hawking was given a year or two to live. He was obviously depressed. The fact that he overcame the limitations of the disease and grew up to be the most famous physicist speaks volumes about his courage and spirit. This trait alone is good enough to earn our kudos.
When he started his research, the detection of black holes was still in its infancy. Cygnus X-1 was postulated to be the first black hole, but not confirmed. Hawking had a bet with a fellow physicist Kip Thorne, who won the Nobel prize in 2017, that Cygnus X-1 will turn out not to be a black hole. Hawking eventually lost the bet of a Penthouse magazine to Thorne. Lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. Lots of black holes were found. Hawking himself made a monumental discovery pertaining to black holes.
Black holes are largely a product of intense gravity. First postulated as a result of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The nearly infinite gravity is supposed to create a trap for all matter and radiation including light. Hence the name. Quantum mechanics was invented by a different set of physicists to describe the behavior at the sub atomic levels. In fact, Einstein did not believe in the statistical nature of the sub atomic particles resulting in uncertainty. Hawking worked on marrying the two concepts to come up with the idea that black holes eventually die. His main conjecture was that a black hole is a black body, like Earth or Sun. It has a temperature and should be emitting radiation. Our own Earth emits infrared radiation in the night, while the Sun emits light due to its higher temperature. If a black hole emits radiation, termed as Hawking radiation, it should bleed to death. Slowly but steadily over a long period of time. At the end of its life, it explodes creating a burst of high-energy gamma rays. The untouchable black hole became subject to the laws of death, like any other object in the Universe. This was a revolutionary concept indeed.
Hawking became more popular due to his book, and his work despite the disability. He came up with another book called “A Briefer History Of Time” which was also very well received by the general public at large. Clearly, another great chapter in popularizing science. His life story was depicted in the movie “Theory of Everything” in which Ed Redmayne played the role of Hawking to perfection. Redmayne won an Oscar for the best actor. Due to his handicap, Hawking led a life in an assisted manner. He did not believe in afterlife, or god. His notion was that nothing existed before our Universe with space-time as dimensions started 13 billion years ago. He was very much disturbed by Trump pulling out of Paris accord on climate change. He strategized that mankind should move out to other planets like Mars or even out of our solar system, due to the dangers of the Earth being destroyed due to human behavior or otherwise.
I stand up and salute this wheel chair bound physicist who caused a leap in our understanding of the black holes, and who spoke clearly and loudly through his computer based voice synthesizer. The only thing missing was a Nobel prize.