Stephen Hawking: A star who shone light on black holes
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
I knew who Stephen Hawking was before I understood what physics was. For many years I did not understand what it was he studied. I only knew that he was an incredibly intelligent man, and that being bound to his wheelchair could not prevent him from doing anything. His death came as a huge shock; despite being given only two years to live back in 1963, it felt like he would go on forever.
Despite being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of just twenty-one, Stephen Hawking managed to achieve more in his seventy-six years than most would even dare to dream of in a lifetime. He studied and taught at some of the best academic institutions in the world, published papers for fifty-two years on black holes, quantum gravity, wormholes and various areas of theoretical figures that most of us would struggle to comprehend. He travelled widely, met Presidents, appeared on TV shows and even experienced zero gravity. Sadly, he did not quite get to experience one of his greatest wishes: to fly into space.
He was a man of tremendous spirit and famous sense of humour. He was not afraid of challenging other physics giants at the beginning of his career and he gained notoriety as a dangerous driver of his wheelchair around Cambridge University. He contributed to the adaptation of his wheelchair that could translate his brain patterns, to allow him to continue to live his life as full as he could make it, and continue to pursue his incredible thirst for questioning how the universe works.
His lasting legacy in the world of physics will probably be his theory of blackbody radiation released at the edges of black holes, named Hawking radiation. His multiple works towards unifying general relativity with quantum theory will no doubt keep theoretical physicists busy for many decades to come.
“I hope I will be remembered for my work on black holes and the origin of the Universe, not for things like appearing on The Simpsons.”
How do you honor a man such as Stephen Hawking; possibly the most widely known physicist since Albert Einstein? It would be all too easy to watch one of his appearances on The Simpsons, or curl up in front of The Theory of Everything. Perhaps it would be more fitting to attempt to read one of his papers or his books, and gain a better understanding of the universe as he saw it. At the very least we should all attempt to capture a bit of his inquiring mind, and simply stay curious.
His family have lost a loved one and the UK has lost a national treasure. The field of physics has lost one of its greatest minds, whereas the world of science has lost a great communicator. The Universe at large has lost a star.