Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Few scientists manage to break down the walls of the so-called ivory tower of academia and touch and inspire people who may not otherwise be interested in science. Stephen Hawking was one of these few. Judging by the odds he faced as a young graduate student of physics at Cambridge University, nothing could have been a more remote possibility. When he was about 20 years old, he got the shattering news that he could not work with the great Fred Hoyle for his PhD, as he had aspired to. Around this time he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, an incurable motor neurone disease, and given two years to live. Not many would have survived this, let alone excelled in the manner he did. Luckily, the type of ALS he had progressed slowly, and over time he made many discoveries that marked him among the great physicists of his time. His first breakthrough was in the work he did for his PhD thesis. The expanding universe and the unstoppable collapse of a black hole under its own gravity present two extreme spectacles for the physicist to grapple with. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s ideas on the latter, Hawking came up with a singularity theorem for the universe. This work and its extensions, known as the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems, brought him international acclaim. Later, along with others he formulated the laws of black hole mechanics, which resemble the laws of thermodynamics. Thinking along these lines led him to a contradiction — that this theory predicted that black holes would exude radiation, whereas in a purely classical picture nothing could escape the black hole, not even light. He resolved this contradiction by invoking quantum mechanics. The radiation of the black hole was named Hawking radiation.

There is no doubt that with Hawking’s death the world has lost an outstanding scientist. But he was not only a pathbreaker in the world of science. He came to be known to millions with the publication of A Brief History of Time, his best-selling book describing in non-technical terms the structure, development and fate of the universe. He ranks with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as that rare physicist who fired the popular imagination. However, while Newton and Einstein worked on broad canvases, Hawking was focussed on cosmology and gravitation. His was a life that carried to the public not only the secrets of the cosmos but also the promise of hope and human endeavour; he showed that disability need not hold a person back in the pursuit of his dreams. He leaves behind a wealth of knowledge, and also the conviction that the will to survive can overcome all odds.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 8:07:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/hawking-1942-2018/article23247070.ece

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