Space Sunday: Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, circa 1970

He was the galaxy’s most unlikely celebrity; a man almost every human with a passing interest in space, news or current affairs had likely heard of, even if they didn’t understand his work. For 55 years he “beat the odds”, so to speak, in living with a terminal illness, a rare form of early onset of motor neurone disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig‘s disease).

Most of all, he forever altered or perception of the cosmos around us. He was able to take the obscure, fringe-like science of cosmology and make it possible the most compelling of space sciences through his insights into gravity, space and time which easily match those of Einstein.

I’m of course speaking about Professor Stephen Hawking, CH CBE FRS FRSA, who passed away on March 14th, 2018 (coincidentally anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein).

Born on January 8th 1942 (coincidentally, the anniversary of the death of Galileo Galilei) in Oxford, England, Stephen Hawking had a modest  – oft described as “frugal” – upbringing. School for the young Stephen was not initially filled with academic prowess – he would later blame the “progressive methods” used at his first school in London, for his failure to learn to read while he attended it.

Things improved after a move to St. Albans, Hertfordshire, where he took his eleven plus examination a year early while attending the independent  St Albans School. His parents hoped he would be able to attend the well-regarded Westminster School, London from the age of 13. However, illness prevented him from taking the entrance examination which would have earned him a scholarship to the school, and without it, his parents could not afford the fees.

Instead, Hawking remained at St Albans, spending his time among a close group of friends, gaining an interest in making model aeroplanes, boats, and also fireworks. Most notably at this time, Hawking entered the influence of Dikran Tahta, his mathematics teacher.

Tahta encouraged Hawking’s interest in mathematics and physics, and urged him to pursue one or the other at University. Hawking’s father, however, wanted his son to follow his footsteps and attend his old Alma Mater, University College, Oxford to study medicine. Unwilling to disappoint his father in his choice of college, but heeding Tahta’s urgings, Hawking enrolled at the college, selecting physics as his subject, mathematics not being a part of the college’s curriculum at the time. He would later declare that Tahta was one of greatest influences on his life, alongside Dennis Sciama and Roger Penrose.

Three major influences on Hawking life: mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta (l), cosmologist Dennis William Sciama (c) and Professor Sir Roger Penrose (r), with whom Hawking collaborated on several of his early papers

Hawking started his university education in 1959 at the age of 17. For his first year-and-a-half he was “bored”, and found his studies “ridiculously easy”. His physics tutor, Robert Berman, would later comment, “It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it.”

During his second year, Hawking became more outgoing – and as a result, more interested in non-academic pursuits. In particular, he joined the college boat club as a coxswain, quickly becoming popular and fiercely competitive, gaining a reputation as a “daredevil”, often picking risky courses for his crew – sometimes leading to the boat being damaged in his thirst for victory.

The result of this was that his studies suffered, and he admitted that by the time his final examinations came around, he was woefully ill-prepared to take them. As a result, he opted only to answer the theoretical physics questions on his paper, knowing he had insufficient knowledge to answer the factual questions. He gambled doing so would  be enough to get him the first-class honours degree he needed if he were to attend Cambridge University for  his post-graduate studies in cosmology.

Hawking (r) coxing an eight at the University College Boat Club at the University College, Oxford, circa 1960

The gamble almost paid off: his results put him on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, requiring he complete an oral exam. As it turned out, his examiners realised they were facing someone far brighter than they on hearing him, and the first-class honours was duly awarded.

Hawking began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in October 1962 and once again found things difficult. He had hoped to study under Sir Fred Hoyle, but instead found Dennis William Sciama, one of the founders of modern cosmology, was his supervisor. It was at this time that Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and given just two years to live.

Understandably, this caused him to almost give up on his studies – only his relationship with his sisters friend, Jane Wilde, whom he met not long before his diagnosis, held interest. The two  became engaged in October 1964 and married in July 1965, Hawking commenting that Jane “gave him something to live for”. However, Sciama was not done with Hawking; throughout this period, he gradually persuaded Hawking to resume his studies.

Hawking met Jane Wilde, his first wife, shortly before he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. They married in 1965, and together had three children – Lucy, Robert and Tim. They divorced in 1995.

With his mobility failing, and suffering an almost complete loss of speech – but with his disease progressing far more slowly than predicted, Hawking did resume his studies under Sciama – and did so brilliantly and with a certain brashness. In 1965, he went so far as to openly challenge Sir Fred Hoyle and his student collaborator, Jayant Narlikar over their Hoyle–Narlikar theory of gravity – which had been developed as a part of Hoyle’s rejection of the Big Bang theory in favour of the steady state model of the universe. In particular, Hawking demonstrated the theory was incompatible with an expanding universe, because the Wheeler-Feynman advanced solution would diverge – an idea he postulated four decades before the accelerating expansion of the universe was understood.

It was the divide in cosmology between the Big Bang and the steady state models which came to fascinate Hawking, driving his desire to understand the true nature of the universe. Inspired by Roger Penrose‘s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the centre of black holes, he applied the same thinking to the entire universe, and was led to entirely dismiss steady state theory.

Instead, he obtained his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology through his  thesis, Properties of expanding universes,  published in 1966. It was the first of many brilliant papers. His essay Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time, also published in 1966 jointly won the Cambridge University Adams Prize that year, alongside an essay by his inspiration, Roger Penrose, with whom he would go to collaborate in studying black holes. 

This marked the start of a career that revolutionised cosmological thinking and theoretical physics. Hawking worked extensively on gravitational singularity theorems, unravelling the mysteries of black holes – including demonstrating that contrary to popular belief, they do actually emit something – now often called Hawking Radiation in his honour.

He investigated cosmological inflation – a theory proposing that following the Big Bang, the universe initially expanded incredibly rapidly before settling down to a slower expansion, which in turn led him to a new line of quantum theory research into the origin of the universe. This led him to a  collaboration with Jim Hartle, resulting in the 1983 publication of the Hartle–Hawking state model of the universe. This proposed that, prior to the Planck epoch, the universe had no boundary in space-time and before the Big Bang, time did not exist, so the concept of the beginning of the universe is meaningless. And, of course, he pursued the “theory of everything” – an attempt to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics – through which we might truly come to understand the universe.

A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, and which brought Hawking firmly into the public domain. Over 10 million copies of the book were sold between 1988 and 2008.

In 1988 he published A Brief History of Time, in which he discusses in non-technical terms the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe. Along the way he talks about basic concepts like space and time, examines the building blocks (such as quarks) that make up the universe and the fundamental forces like gravity, that govern it and more, up to and including “the theory of everything”. The book was an instant best-seller and catapulted Hawking to the status of celebrity – a role he vastly enjoyed through his life, although it never distracted him from his work.

More books followed, including The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), A Briefer History of Time, (2005), co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow as a means to update his earlier works and make them accessible to a wider audience, and George’s Secret Key to the Universe, (2007) a children’s book written with his daughter Lucy designed to explain theoretical physics in an accessible fashion and featuring characters similar to those in the Hawking family (two sequels were published in 2011 and 2014). A Brief History of Time itself became a film in 1992, produced by Steven Spielberg – although it served more as a biographical piece that the science documentary Hawking had hoped (Hawking’s life would later be celebrated in the 2014 film, The Theory of Everything).

As much as he altered our perceptions and understanding of the cosmos, Hawking did much more. For 55 years he lived with a debilitating disease which left him prisoner in his own body, reliant on technology and the support of others. But he did so with scarcely a complaint. He never shied from encouraging others with disabilities from striving to achieve something, writing, “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. don’t be disabled in spirit as well and physically.”

Hawking with his first wife, Jane, and children Lucy (born 1970), Robert (1967 – behind his father) and Tim (1979, between his parents), in the 1980s.

His lifelong commitment to the disabled was demonstrated through promoting things like the viral ice bucket challenge (even volunteering his children), and becoming patron of the The Motor Neurone Disease Association (in fact, following his passing, the MND Association reported its website had crashed as a result of so many people responding to the news and making donations). At the turn of the century, he and eleven other luminaries signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments to prevent disability and to protect the rights of the disabled.

In his own case, he would often treat his condition with a wicked twist humour. When asked in an interview on the occasion of his 66th birthday about how he felt about his motor neurone disease, he replied, “Given I was only given two years to live when diagnosed 45 years ago – pretty good!”

His condition also didn’t dampen his devil-may-care attitude, first seen in his days as a rowing cox. In writing about Hawking, scientist, broadcaster and writer Roger Highfield recalls the fact that Hawking was never satisfied with just having an electric wheelchair, he wanted a fast electric wheelchair, to the point that, exhilarated by a 60th birthday ride in a hot air balloon, Hawking was placed back in his wheelchair, and took off at high-speed – only to crash and break his leg taking a corner too fast!

Hawking was also unafraid to dip into a broad range of issues from healthcare, through  to politics – and often demonstrated a pithy observational approach to matters. Responding to a certain US presidential candidate’s need to repeatedly reference his “high IQ”, Hawking simply quipped, “people who boast about their IQs are losers.”  On the subject of Britain’s NHS funding, he was also not afraid to speak out, noting, “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment, without which I would not have survived.”

Among his many television appearances, Hawking guest starred on Star Trek The Next Generation (above, with the actors who portrayed Einstein and Newton), The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, Futurama – and even ran down Professor Brian Cox in Monty Python Live (Mostly) while narrating The Galaxy Song …

The accolades Hawking received in recognition of his work in cosmology are numerous. In 1979 he was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Its former holders include Isaac Newton, Joseph Larmor, Charles Babbage, George Stokes, and Paul Dirac. As well as the honours mentioned at the top of this piece, he received the 2015 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences, shared with Viatcheslav Mukhanov, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. In 2015 he even had an award named for him: the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, bestowed by the Starmus Festival to individuals in science and the arts to recognise their work helping to promote the public awareness of science.

In 2016 he received a lifetime achievement award “for his contribution to science and British culture” at the Pride of Britain Awards. In receiving the award from Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, he again let his mischievous sense of humour show itself, responding, “Thank you Prime Minister for those very kind words. I deal with tough mathematical questions every day, but please don’t ask me to help with Brexit!” (Hawking was, and remained, an opponent of the UK leaving the EU, believing it would significantly damage the UK’s science standing).

Throughout his life, Hawking astounded those around him, not only for his brilliance as a scientist, but for his wit, humanity, compassion and understanding. Despite his celebrity and research, he remained a committed educator personally supervising 39 successful PhD students. He also leant  his voice to scientific and humanitarian goals such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), supporting the Breakthrough Initiatives, launched in 2015, and advocated the The Global Goals, a series of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit to end extreme poverty, social inequality, and fixing climate change over the 15 years from 2015 to 2030.

Shortly after his 65th birthday in 2007, Hawking enjoyed zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft owned by Zero Gravity Corp., (Zero G). He is pictured with Peter Diamandis (r), founder of the Zero G Corp., and Byron Lichtenberg, a former NASA astronaut and Zero G Corp., president (l). Kneeling below Hawking is his aide and nurse practitioner Nicola O’Brien. At the time, Hawking hoped the experience would be a prelude to a sub-orbital flight with Virgin Galactic; unfortunately, delays with that programme meant Hawking would be unable to experience it

Professor Hawking died at his home in Cambridge, England, early in the morning of March 14th, 2018, at the age of 76. In statement released following his passing, his family said:

We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years… He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.

His loss leaves the cosmos a little darker now. But his legacy means it is also illuminated more brightly, allowing all of us to understand its majesty that much more clearly.


3 thoughts on “Space Sunday: Stephen Hawking

  1. Professor Hawking was a truly great humanitarian and visionary! Let’s hope that we as a species will heed his warnings and start trying to reverse the damage we’ve done to our collective home–Planet Earth!

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