On March 14, 2018, the world mourned the loss of one of the most brilliant minds of the modern age – Stephen Hawking. The 76-year-old theoretical physicist, who was born exactly 300 years after the death anniversary of Galileo and died on Albert Einstein’s 139th birthday, finally succumbed to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which he had been battling since the age of 21. The brilliant cosmologist, best known for his invaluable discoveries about black holes and the origins of the universe, was beloved for his sense of humor and his engagement with the public.
Born in Oxford, England on January 8, 1942, to research biologist Frank and intellectual Isobel Hawking, the researcher began his scientific career studying physics and chemistry at his parents’ alma mater – Oxford University. However, Hawking found the curriculum “ridiculously easy” and estimates he only studied about 1,000 hours during his three years at the institution. Though that meant he was unable to answer any of the factual questions in the final examination in 1963, the scientist managed to obtain admission for graduate studies at Cambridge University to focus on his real passion – cosmology.
Hawking’s first year at Cambridge was not easy. In addition to the disappointment of not getting the mentor he had wanted, the 21-year-old was also diagnosed with ALS and informed that he only had a few years to live. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the incurable affliction destroys nerve cells, leading to muscle twitching, muscle weakness, slurred speech, and eventually death. Though initially depressed at the dire diagnoses, with encouragement from his advisor, Dennis William Sciama — one of the founders of modern cosmology — Hawking soon returned to his research.
As expected, the illness eventually left him wheelchair bound. In 1985, a bout of pneumonia destroyed his ability to speak, forcing him to use his cheek muscles to operate a speech synthesizer to communicate. However, Hawking’s brilliant mind remained sharp and focused until his passing.
The cosmologist, who dedicated his life to achieving a “complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all,” made his most significant breakthrough in 1974. The researcher proved that black holes — regions in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out — are not informational vacuums like scientists had always believed. He was able to demonstrate that black holes thermally create and emit subatomic particles, known today as Hawking radiation until they exhaust all their energy and evaporate completely. The scientist explained, “Black holes ain’t so black: they glow,” and, contrary to popular belief, do not last for eternity.
The researcher also pondered many contemporary issues, such as climate change and the existence of aliens. In 2015, he partnered with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to launch “Breakthrough Initiatives,” a project that uses high-powered computers to listen for extraterrestrial life. "Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours aware of what they mean," Hawking said. "Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that here on our rock, the universe discovered its existence?"
Hawking’s groundbreaking research earned the physicist numerous accolades, including Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Fundamental Physics Prize in 2013. He was also named a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of Science.
Of the more than fifteen books Hawking wrote during his lifetime, “A Brief History of Time,” published in 1988, remains the most popular. The cosmology text, which has sold over 10 million copies, tackles complex topics like black holes and the Big Bang in a manner that can be understood by scientists and non-scientists alike.
Despite his debilitating illness, Hawking maintained a positive attitude and lived life to the fullest, even guest-starring (as himself) in popular television shows like The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. In 2007, he fulfilled his lifelong dream of going to space when he experienced microgravity at the Kennedy Space Center. “[It was] true freedom,” he said. “I was Superman for those few minutes.”
R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
Resources: newscientist.com,thevox.com, wikipedia.org, cnn.com