Ode to timeless brilliance
Often phenomenal scientific advancements and pathbreaking discoveries with a tremendous potential fail to make an indelible impression on the common...
Often phenomenal scientific advancements and pathbreaking discoveries with a tremendous potential fail to make an indelible impression on the common man. Plagued by the absence of meticulous minds that can translate wonders of science into simple words, innumerable contributions of ingenious intellects remain obscure.
Endowed with a unique combination of brilliance and humour, Cosmologist and inveterate science populariser, Stephen Hawking set a new precedent in scientific outreach. Born on the 300th birth anniversary of Galileo, Hawking breathed last on International Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, seems a cosmic connivance to pay homage to science’s brightest star.
Demystifying the complex theories of Universe, Hawking, educated people about science and emerged as a new phenomenon and a celebrity scientist. Besides shaping the modern-day Cosmology with his scientific insights, he inspired millions of people.
Trumping the debilitating illness which confined him to a wheelchair for over five decades, he exuded rare brilliance and relentlessly engaged in scientific pursuits and popularisation of science. Unshaken by the disability inflicted by a rare disease, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s syndrome, that gradually cripples brain-muscle coordination at a young age of 21, he made seminal contributions to the field of Cosmology. Defying doctors’ prognosis of survival for few years, he lived for the next 50 years.
His first breakthrough, Hawking’s radiation in 1970 that postulated black holes emit radiations but will lose energy and then disappear created ripples in the scientific field. This was against Quantum mechanics, which propounded that energy/information can’t be lost. This black hole paradox has created a vertical split among Astro-Physicists. Hawking believed blackhole may have the head of hairs while the other group backed the no-hair model based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
In 2015, revising his own calculations, Hawking proposed the concept of soft hair on blackholes indicating that information doesn’t disappear in blackhole but is stored at the event horizon. Not all physicists were convinced of this new description. But the crux of the issue is that he has been tirelessly working on the black hole paradox for over 45 years despite living in the shadow of death.
ALS left him completely paralyzed reducing the bodily control to flexing of a finger, movement of eyes but mental faculties were intact. He lost his voice muscles progressively and for the last three decade, he has been communicating through an exclusive voice synthesiser.
Hawking’s absolute determination, indomitable will and single-minded approach to unravel mysteries of Universe have propelled him to make radical discoveries earning him a place in Royal Society at a young age of 32. He became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a post previously held by Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, and Paul Dirac, one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics when he was 37 years old. He revolutionised the field of Cosmology with dynamic ideas.
In 1982 he showed that Quantum fluctuations or minute variations in the distribution of matter seeded the formation of stars and planets. While Hawking’s seminal discoveries in Cosmology elevated him to towering heights in a scientific field, his book, “A brief history of time” published in 1988 catapulted him to stardom and immense popularity.
The book besides meticulously deciphering marvels of Universe quenched the spirit of enquiry of youngsters and science enthusiasts making it the most popular book in science. Over 10 million copies of the book were sold in past 20 years. It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for unprecedented 237 weeks, making it to the Guinness Book of World records. Galvanised by the popularity of the book, Errol Morris made it into a documentary.
Hawking authored 12 books in all, popularising various aspects of Universe, made appearances in several TV shows like the ‘Star Trek’, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’. German composer, Rolf Riehm composed a 35-minute piece titled “Hawking” and held ode to his “ceaseless extension of limits”. In 2014, commemorating, his inspired living, James Marsh made Hawking’s biopic ‘The Theory of Everything’, an Academy Award winner.
Hawking’s visibility as a scientist is unparalleled and any pronouncement by him makes it to the headlines. He believed that humanity should spread out into space but warned people of alien invasions and full development of artificial intelligence. He feared the development of AI that equals or surpasses human intellect can spell doom for entire humanity. Being eternally optimistic, enthusiastic, and open to new collaborations, Hawking became part of Breakthrough Initiatives funded by the Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner focused on space exploration and search for alien life.
Hawking won Albert Einstein Award, the Wolf Prize, the Copley Medal, and the Fundamental Physics Prize. In 2016, when Israeli physicist announced finding a convincing evidence for Hawking radiation, people expected Hawking to win a Nobel. But experts ruled that results were not conclusive, hence the Nobel Prize eluded him.
Physicists are hopeful that study of black holes through gravitational waves might provide clinching evidence for Hawking’s black hole paradox. In his illustrious scientific stint, besides black holes, Hawking worked on nature of gravity and origin of Universe. He pointed that black holes are not black as they are made out to be.
Incidentally, some of his ideas about Universe its evolution, origin and more specifically Big Bang theory earned him the wrath of religious leaders. Hawking openly dismissed the role of God as creator and comforts of religious beliefs. Similarly, he courted controversies for his anti-Semitic stance, strong support to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) of Israel, declaring women a complete mystery, oblique references to Monica Lewinsky during his lecture at White House.
Hawking was bold, courageous, and remained undaunted by controversies. He travelled across the globe, visited every continent including Antarctica, celebrated 60th birthday in a hot air balloon, crashed his wheelchair while speeding in Cambridge corridor, as a prelude for space travel on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip two, Hawking took a ride in zero-gravity aircraft in 2007.
Despite his physical constraints, his spirit wasn’t disabled, he lived life to the fullest. A contemporary incarnate of amazing willpower and determination, Hawking made the planet richer with his knowledge. Though he physically left his body, his vivacious scientific spirit will pervade eternal cosmos as the brightest star…
By: Ramaharitha Pusarla