Stephen Hawking died in the early hours of this morning at his home in Cambridge, aged 76. His work on what happens when stars collapse into themselves made him the most famous scientist in the world since Einstein. He was one of the early academics in trying to understand how the universe emerged as a whole.
There are very few people on earth who are not familiar with him and more importantly, few who cannot fail to be inspired by the contributions that he made in the field of academic science, irrespective of the physical challenges that he faced. Hawkings’ concepts were difficult to grasp but he was an excellent communicator, irrespective of his disabilities, and never failed to keep people engaged. I listened to a speech he gave once on Radio 4 this morning and it made me, along with the members of the audience at the time, laugh:
‘From my own perspective, it has been a glorious time to be alive and do research in the field of theoretical physics. There is nothing like the Eureka! moment of discovering something that no one knew before, so my advice to young scientists is to be curious and try to make sense of what you see. We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand. Despite recent triumphs, there are many new and deep mysteries that remain for you to solve and keep a sense of wonder about our vast and complex universe and what makes it exist. You must remember that science and technology are changing our world dramatically, so it’s important to ensure that these changes are heading in the right direction. In a democratic society, this means that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of science to make informed decisions about the future, so communicate plainly what you are trying to do in science and who knows, you might even end up understanding it yourself!’
The Telegraph said of him today that he was a ‘genius with razor sharp wit’.
A self-effacing sense of humour
He famously played himself in Star Trek in a scene where is depicted playing poker with Newton; who was obviously not played by himself.
At 17, Hawking was accepted to Oxford University to study physics where his father, a physician who specialised in the study of tropical diseases, also studied. He annoyed his professors at Oxford for doing so well with seemingly little effort and when making the decision of whether to award him a high 2:1 or a 1st, Hawking said that if they gave him a 2:1, he would do his post-graduate studies there but if they gave him a 1st, he would move to Cambridge. He got a 1st.
It was whilst studying his PhD at Cambridge that Hawking was diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease and given 2 years to live. He was out ice skating with his girlfriend at the time Jane, later to become his wife, and struggled to get up again. From my recollection, this scene is depicted in the Oscar winning film ‘A Theory of Everything’. The film was based on Jane’s memoirs ‘Travelling to Infinity’, the screenplay for which as written by James Marsh. It won several awards with the actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking, winning best actor for many of them. The film was 10 years in the making and when Hawking first saw it, he is said to have enjoyed it but commented that he would have liked more science and less emotion. His wife’s response? She would have liked ‘more emotion and less science’.
The two had 3 children together, Lucy, Robert and Tim, and were married for 26 years, from 1965 – 1991 when they divorced. They split in 1990 when Hawking left his wife for one of his nurses. He went on to marry said nurse, Elaine Mason, in 1995. They were married for 11 years before divorcing in 2007. When they divorced, Hawking and his former wife resumed amicable relations and the two lived close to each other in Cambridge until his death in the early hours of this morning.
Jane said that Hawking made her laugh and she was in love with him so, even after he was diagnosed aged only 22, she thought she could easily devote 2 years of her life to him to help him achieve his ambitions. He went on to live for another 52 years.
A near miss shortly before the publication of his most famous book
In 1985 during a trip to Switzerland, Hawking contracted pneumonia and it nearly killed him. At one point his then wife Jane was asked whether they should turn the life support machine off, but she refused. Hawking’s former college, Caius College in Cambridge, flew him back for emergency treatment. It was during an emergency tracheotomy that allowed him to breathe that Hawking lost his speech entirely; hence the use of the speech synthesiser that went on to create his trademark voice. An Equalizer computer program, coupled with a voice synthesiser, allowed Hawking to select words from a series of menus on a screen which was controlled by a switch in his hand.
In an interview with The Independent in 2014, Hawking admitted that he almost gave up during this procedure:
‘I admit that when I had my tracheostomy operation, I briefly tried to commit suicide by not breathing. However, the reflex to breathe was too strong’.
After this, he went on to publish his most famous book in 1988: ‘A Brief History of Time’, in which he tried to make the field of theoretical physics more accessible to ordinary people. His first wife Jane studied modern languages and said that she was hopeless at physics; yet Stephen was able to explain things to her. It was this book that made him famous and sold over 10 million copies. It was also translated into 40 different languages. And so Hawking brought physics to the main stream:
‘Theoretical physics is one of the few fields in which being disabled is no handicap. It’s all in the mind’.
A Theory of Everything and God
Hawking went on to develop what he called ‘A Theory of Everything’, which shows that the universe developed according to a series of well-defined laws, hence the title that was chosen for the film.
‘This complete set of laws could give us answers to questions like, how did the universe begin, where is it going, will it have and end and if so, how will it end? If we find the answers to these questions, we really shall know the mind of God’.
He didn’t believe in God, which sometimes caused friction with his first wife who did. He famously said:
‘There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful’.
In 2011 Hawking appeared on the Discovery Channel in a TV series called ‘Curiosity’ in which he said that the God and the afterlife was just a ‘fairy story for people afraid of the dark’.
Hawking’s other interests
Despite his immense handicaps, Hawking remained psychologically normal. He was interested in current affairs and expressing his opinions outside of science. He had many things to say on the future of mankind and expressed some concern over the precautions we would need to take in the field of artificial intelligence:
‘Computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours’.
This makes him very pertinent, especially today. Hawking also believed that at one point in the future, perhaps in the next 1000 years, man would have to relocate to another planet due to the inevitable destruction of life on earth as we now know it:
‘It is possible that the human race could become extinct but it is not inevitable. I think it is almost certain that a disaster such as nuclear war or global warming will befall the earth within 1,000 years. It is essential that we colonise space. I believe that we will eventually establish self-sustaining colonies on Mars and other bodies in the solar system, although probably not within the next 100 years. I am optimistic that progress in science and technology will eventually enable humans to spread beyond the solar system into the far reaches of the universe’.
On his condition
When being interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island discs 1992, Hawking said that it was the prospect of an early death made him realise life was really worth living. He believed that he made a ‘modest but significant contribution to human knowledge’, despite his condition:
‘The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance’.
He always said that where there where there was physical illness, there was no space for psychological illness.
A lesser known fact about Hawking
It wasn’t just adults he tried to translate the world of physics to. What is less known about him is that he also wrote some children’s books with his daughter Lucy. His first one was published in 2007: ‘George’s Secret Key to the Universe’, and was a story about a little boy George who was keen on time travel. Before embarking on it however, George had to take the ‘Oath of the Scientist’, in which he promised to use scientific knowledge only for good. The book went on to become a series.
It is said that he wanted to have inscribed on his grave stone an equation that linked together 3 previously unlinked areas of physics: nature of gravity, quantum principle and thermo dynamics, the 3 principles that led to his famous theory on black holes known as ‘Hawking radiation’.
In 2012, his daughter spoke about her father’s love of the limelight, saying that he was ‘a showman, an impresario at heart’ and that he loved ‘a big spectacle, whether he’s watching it or giving it’.
For me his most important epitaph would be what he once said:
‘I hope my example will give hope to others in similar situations: never give up’.
But my favourite quote? Someone has just texted me to ask. For me it is his most inspiring and was used to close the Today Program on Radio 4 this morning. I heard it as I was dropping my little boy Oscar off at school and I just missed the gate because I was so moved that I wanted to hear it in its entirety there and then. It was recorded for Radio 4 as part of a Q&A lecture in 2016:
‘I think my work and sense of humour have kept me going. You probably know this already because there has been a movie about it. In this situation, it was important that I came to appreciate what I did have. Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I have been very fortune in almost everything else. I have been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time and it’s one of the few areas in which my disability was not a serious handicap. It’s all important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life may seem, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and life in general’.
A book of condolence is due to be opened at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where Hawking was a fellow. Today, their flag is flying at half mast and they have their own tribute to him on their web site:
Famous quotes by Stephen:
‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed it. It matters that you just don’t give up’.
‘Quiet people have the loudest minds’.
‘The origin of the universe can be explained through the logics of physics without any need for miracles or divine intervention. These laws predict that the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing in a rapidly expanding state. This is called inflation because it is like the way that prices in the shops go up at an ever increasing rate. Time is defined only with the universe so it makes no sense to talk about time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole’.
On whether the universe is one of many:
‘Our best bet for a theory of everything is end theory. One prediction of end theory is that there are many different universes with different values for their physical constance. This might explain why the physical constance we measure seems fine tuned to the values required for life to exist. It is no surprise that we observe the physical constance to be finely tuned. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe them. One way of testing this would be to look for features in the cosmic microwave background radiation which would indicate the collision of another universe with ours in the distant past’.
‘The mere fact of having to organise my thoughts to that I can explain them to others shows me a new way forward’.
The Nobel prize winning neuroscientist, Edvard Moser, said of Hawking that he was:
‘An inspiration not just for his science, but because he has emphasised the need for science to be brought to the public’.
And when his mother spoke to the BBC in 2002, she said that as a young boy, he was just a:
‘Normal young man who liked parties, liked adventure and pretty young girls; only the pretty ones’.
Sources and Further Reading:
I won’t recommend any particular obituary: there are so many. But I do recommend the Guardian’s little cartoon video explaining his ideas:
Hawking’s speech at Oxford in 2015:
Interview with The Independent, 17.7.14:
Image of Stephen and Jane in garden with two children, BBC images, courtesy of Lucy Hawking
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