When science was made boring by textbooks and was something to be laboriously studied, Stephen Hawking swept in with his book. It was “A Brief History Of Time”, borrowed from the school library and spent a week hunching over, that made me and many kids like me curious and interested about science. The British scientist, who was famed for his work with black holes and relativity, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21. Yet, that did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest minds in cosmology.
Hawking conceptualised the Big Bang theory: the idea that the universe began as a tiny speck that subsequently expanded. Nowadays this is widely accepted, but at the time it was still up for debate. One of his major discoveries came in 1970, when he, along with Roger Penrose, showcased the existence of a singularity through the application of mathematics. Singularity, a region of infinite curvature in spacetime, lay in the centre of a black hole and was said to be the point from which came the big bang. In 1974 Hawking drew on quantum theory to declare that black holes leak energy and fade to nothing, a phenomenon that later became known as the Hawking radiation. For his discoveries, at the young age of 32, he was elected to the Royal Society. Five years later, he became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, one of Britain’s most distinguished chair, previously held by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics.
However, like any human, he too had his vices. American physicist Leonard Susskind had disagreed to Hawking’s remarks in a 1981 speech in San Francisco about the paradox of vanishing information in black-hole physics. Even though Susskind’s argument was more convincing, Hawking didn’t concede until 2004. Similarly, Hawkings was proved wrong again by the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, which he had firmly bet against being ever found.
While we all must celebrate his achievements in the field of physics, we cannot deny that he was a man of political conscience as well. He has been vocal about his support to the Labour Party. His opinion pieces and articles were frequently published in the Guardian, that spread over issues like Brexit, the Syrian war, Trump’s electoral win. Hawking’s public image was a result of not just his discoveries but also his personality. It was his witty remarks at public speeches, his wheelchair-bound image taking humorous jibes and his ability to grasp his audience’s attention with his storytelling that catapulted him into what he became. He became a part of popular culture, appearing on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also lent his voice for a Pink Floyd song and guest-starred on The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, where he frequently bantered with lead character Sheldon Cooper.
The intricacies of his mind and it’s functioning, his battle with ALS that no one thought he could brave for so long, his tumultuous personal life; he is an amalgamation of them all. The theoretical physicist had his life bared out infront of the world, yet he remains an enigma.
People like Hawking are born once in a while, hence, his death has struck me and many of us hard. The only thing we can find solace is in one of his quotes “I believe the simplest explanation is, there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation that there probably is 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.”