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A Tribute to the Haw-King of Physics

Science editor Gabriel Yeap explores the extraordinary life of the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking

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There have been many greats in our time. Michael Jackson, the ‘King of Pop’, Carrie Fisher – The leader of the Rebellion, Paul Walker – The cop-turned mercenary whose stunts were heavily edited… Even George Michael had to give his heart away two years ago. A general theme follows our shock and deep sadness at their passing, these great, men and women are all master entertainers, able to teleport our minds to their world in the snap of a finger, and even seemingly walk on the moon in front of millions of encapsulated people. Never before has the world so deeply mourned a man of science, much less so a man whose disability disabled so little of his brilliant mind that many of us don’t even consider him so. His name is Stephen Hawking, and I would be speechless if you didn’t recognise his name.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one Stephen William Hawking was born 300 years exactly after Galileo Galilei, the great scientist from centuries ago that deciphered the stars above us. Born in Oxford in 1942 to a medical researcher and a philosophy graduate, he first realised something was wrong one day when he was ice skating. Upon falling, he got up with immense difficulty. Just as in the dramatic scene in “The theory of everything”, doctors diagnosed him with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and gave him at most a few years to live. ALS is a disease where cells in the brain that control motor function gradually die, leading to an inability to control the muscles of the body. He was a prisoner trapped in his own existence. An unexpectedly slow advance of the disease meant that time had given him a stay on his death sentence, and boy did he do it justice.

Hawking in zero gravity. Source: wikimedia

He may have had it worse off than a bruising of the head, courtesy of what is probably the most celebrated apple in history, but just like the biggest and ‘baddest’ in physics like Sir Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac, professor Hawking graduated from the University of Oxford with a first class degree in physics. He was said to be an unusually confident person, once interrupting the great astrophysicist Fred Hoyle mid-lecture to correct him on the masses of particles.

As his motor neuron disease worsened, his determination and resolve to uncover the secrets of the universe became stronger. The disease plagued his ability to move and speak so badly that he underwent a tracheotomy in 1985, removing what little ability he had left to speak. It was replaced with a voice synthesizer made by Intel with the iconic cyborg accent that he’s famous for. As more of his muscles failed, the process of controlling a cursor on the screen to type out sentences became painfully slow. So one can only imagine when he published 256 pages of the book ‘A Brief History of Time’, which became a world bestseller. It was his breakthrough moment to stardom, as it propelled him to celebrity status in the eyes of the public, not that he wasn’t already a star in the scientific field.

this man was a genius for joining Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the emerging, bizarre field of quantum mechanics

He is most famous apart from appearances on TV in Star Trek, The Simpsons and The Big Band Theory, for his research and ground-breaking ideas on black holes. 3 decades ago, Albert Einstein came up with the theory of general relativity, etching space and time on the immovable pillar of gravity. It showed that space and time were malleable and that they were not abstracts. He showed that they could be manipulated and altered based on each other. The period in which young Hawking was thrust into was one of a growing hype around Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It was initiated by Roger Penrose who introduced new mathematical techniques for it. His results showed that the standard model of general relativity would lead to infinities. The call was out for a new branch of physics.

Enter Stephen Hawking. He hypothesised about the existence of black holes and likened it to the analogy of entropy. Entropy is a law that states that everything is gradually descending into disorder and chaos and that it is irreversible. If you don’t believe me just reflect on your fresher year compared to the present day. He said that black holes are just like entropy, one-way membranes where nothing that falls in can ever escape from. You can’t reverse it once it’s in. And so, in the early 1970s, he co-authored a paper with Roger Penrose on the nature of black holes. He shocked the physics world when his calculations showed that the surface of black holes emits radiation, fashionably named Hawking Radiation. The implications of this were enormous, this meant that black holes would eventually disappear due to the emission, and thus lead to a total wipeout of all information that gets sucked into it’s well, a black hole for want a better term.

Illustration of a black hole. Source: pixabay

Incredibly he never won a Nobel Prize chiefly because his theory was impossible to test, although he was elected to the Royal Society aged 32. But it’s undeniable that this man was a genius for joining Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the emerging, bizarre field of quantum mechanics in holy matrimony.

Science aside, what truly makes Stephen Hawking famous and worth all the commendation due him is his brilliance in combining the communication of science to the public with being a pioneer in physics with such elegance and ease. The most endearing part about him is his positivity in the face of such immense frustration caused by his worsening condition. He was always energized wherever he went and displayed a robust common sense coupled with a witty sense of humour. He expressed his opinions forcefully, supported political causes and never shied away from the incessant media. His ability to make himself and everyone watching him look past such an obvious disability were awe-inspiring. He was an imprisoned mind that roamed the cosmos.

Never before has the world so deeply mourned a man of science

Often, the best way to describe a person is in their own words, so I will leave you with a great quote from an even greater man:

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life are empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”

RIP Stephen Hawking.

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