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Stephen Hawking: 1942-2018

“Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” – Stephen Hawking

In the early hours of the morning, March 14th 2018, Professor Stephen Hawking passed quietly away at his family home. With him went one of the greatest minds in modern science.

The British scientist, best known for his work in cosmology and theoretical physics, was famed for his work with black holes and relativity, and his book A Brief History of Time is an international best seller. For most of us, his work would go over our heads, and yet Hawking was not only hugely influential in science, but was also a fond household name. Until his passing, he was often referred to as “the smartest person in the world”, and he is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

So, without attempting to explain theoretical physics – what did Hawking do? To start out, he was the first person to set out a theory of cosmology that unified relativity and quantum mechanics. On top of this, his work with mathematician Sir Roger Penrose demonstrated that Einstein’s general theory of relativity implied that space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes, and he greatly advanced our understanding of how black holes work, as well as creating theoretical concepts such as “imagined time”.

Whilst it would take several books to explain what Hawking’s discoveries mean, we can remember him by looking back at who he was. Although presciently nicknamed “Einstein” at school, it took Hawking some time to begin to succeed academically. (Then again, Einstein struggled with school as well!). That said, he showed a keen aptitude for science, as well as undertaking projects with his friends that involved building a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.

Despite sometimes concerning his teachers, he managed to gain acceptance into Oxford, where he read natural science at University College. (Hawking had wanted to read mathematics, but his father had convinced him otherwise – a choice that would vex him after graduation) In the first year, he once again found himself easily bored by the unchallenging work, but by the second year, he opened up and became a popular and lively ‘one of the lads’ – although he was still a frustration to his teachers! Favouring rowing to studying, he coxed a boating crew, making risky choices that ended in several damaged boats. After apparently only putting in a meager 1000 hours of study during his three-year undergraduate degree, and failing to revise sufficiently for his final exams, he chose to opt for theoretical physic questions on his papers in order to hide that he hadn’t revised the facts!

This sort of approach would get many people into trouble, but Hawking was as humorous, quick-witted and, frankly, cheeky as he was intelligent: when sitting his oral examination, he was asked about his plans after graduation, and reportedly answers “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” Humour aside, Hawking managed to legitimately earn his First, allowing him to pursue his graduate studies of choice – reading cosmology at the University of Cambridge. The rest, as they say, is history.

However, fate threw what looked like a spanner into the works. During his first year of doctoral studies, at only 22, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given only two years to live. Understandably, he fell into depression: he was already feeling disheartened by his studies, finding that his level of mathematics training was not sufficient for work in general relativity and cosmology. Doctors encouraged Hawking to continues his studies, but at first, he saw little point. However, the illness progressed far slower than predicted in the diagnosis, and eventually, re-discovering his passion for the subject helped spur Hawking on despite the physical challenges he was facing. Despite having difficulty in speaking clearly or standing unsupported, his old brashness came back to him, and he soon gained a reputation for brilliance and, frankly, a ballsy attitude. Eventually, he was calling out the professors he revered and publicly challenging their work – there was no doubt that he had a rare mind.

During the ‘60s, whilst Hawking was undertaking his graduate studies, there was heated debate in the physics world over theories on creation: in particular, the Big Bang theory vs. the Steady State. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the center of black holes, Hawking applied the same theory to the entire universe. In 1965, he wrote his thesis on this topic, and thus began a life of work that has challenged and greatly advanced modern science’s ideas and understanding of the universe.

From here, his academic life from here on was success to success: he received a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge and earned his PhD degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialised in general relativity and cosmology. The positions and accreditations that followed were numerous, so much so that we will blast through them (and we’ll probably still miss some off!): from 1979 to 2009, Hawking held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge – a chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663; he was also the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge; he received over a dozen honorary degrees during his life, and was awarded the CBE in 1982; he was a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and also of the US National Academy of Science; he was a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award in the United States.

Needless to say, his career was prolific. As well as his famed A Brief History of Time, Hawking has also published many other books furthering his work on theoretical physics, including more accessible volumes for the public such as A Briefer History of Time, the essay collection Black Holes and Baby Universe and The Universe in a Nutshell. Before his death, he also published a memoir titled My Brief History.

Hawking’s relationship with his disability was a complicated one throughout his life: passing at 76 instead of his doctors’ original prediction of 24, it was a major factor for the majority of his life, and his wheelchair and voice synthesizer were and will remain an iconic part of his image. Whilst initially a cause of depression, and at times, a struggle throughout his life, Hawking also once described his disability as a blessing, stating that it had freed him from administration, teaching unwanted classes, and other activities that would have consumed his time. Instead, he felt free to focus on his work.

He was also more than happy to talk about the equipment he used to travel and communicate, and had a keen sense of humour about it! For example, he once expressed the great joy he took in ‘accidently’ rolling over the toes of famous figures he didn’t like, and expressed his regret that he had never had this opportunity with Margarette Thatcher. So, as a key feature of Hawking’s life, and one he was happy to discuss, exactly how did his chair work? Why not hear it from the man himself? On Hawking’s home page, he went into the topic in detail:

“Since 1997, my computer-based communication system has been sponsored and provided by Intel® Corporation. A tablet computer mounted on the arm of my wheelchair is powered by my wheelchair batteries, although the tablets internal battery will keep the computer running if necessary. 

My main interface to the computer is through an open source program called ACAT, written by Intel. A cursor automatically scans across this keyboard by row or by column. I can select a character by moving my cheek to stop the cursor. My cheek movement is detected by an infrared switch that is mounted on my spectacles. This switch is my only interface with the computer. ACAT includes a word prediction algorithm provided by SwiftKey, trained on my books and lectures, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer. I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech Plus. It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish!” Hawking dabbled in various technologies during his life, including eye tracking and brain-controlled interfaces, but he favoured his cheek-operated switch, describing it as “easier and less fatiguing to use.”

His forthcoming approach to his condition allowed Hawking to make a difference to many that ran parallel to his contributions to science: raising awareness on motor neurone disease, and serving as a public beacon to the fact that such disabilities do not have to signal the end of someone’s achievements, and he was certainly a symbol against the stigma that such condition reflect on a person’s intelligence! Whilst he became this symbol inadvertently, by virtue of his life and success, Hawking eventually embraced the role: starting in the 1990s, he began lecturing and participating in fundraising activities, and in 2000, he and eleven other luminaries signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments to prevent disability and protect the rights of the disabled. In 1999, Hawking was awarded the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society.

Whilst we have lost a brilliant mind, and more than that, a passionate and quick-witted one, the legacy and legend of Stephen Hawking will live on. He has been immortalized not only in his work, and the lasting impact he has had on theoretical science, but also in media: an avid science fiction fan, Hawking appeared in cameos in many of the US and the UK’s favourite sci-fi shows, including Star Trek, Red Dwarf and, shortly before his passing, a new addition to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He also appeared in comedies such as The Big Bang Theory, and perhaps most famously, The Simpsons. Before his death, he was also able to see himself portrayed by both Eddie Redmayne in the critically acclaimed film The Theory of Everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC TV film Hawking.

Passion for his work continues; unsurprisingly, A Brief History of Time shot to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list after news of his death, and perhaps most touchingly, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, of which Hawking had been a patron since 2008, reported that its website crashed after the news was released, due to the sudden rise in donations made to the charity. Professor Hawking may not have believed in an afterlife, but in terms of living on after one has passed, he will stay with us indefinitely among the other great minds in science’s history.