Stephen Hawking: A Life Well Lived

March 14 marks Stephen Hawking’s fourth death anniversary. Having lived 76 years, Hawking died on 14 March 2018 which brought much sadness to the world. Known for his great contribution to the world of science and cosmology, Stephen William Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and an author who wrote the book, “A Brief History of Time”. He was also the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. To commemorate this physicist, Echo has decided to write this article.  

Hawking’s Life Story 

Stephen William Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 (300 years after the birth of Galileo Galilei) in Oxford. He was born into a family of physicians and at the bright young age of 17, he was admitted into University College, Oxford. Stephen was an intelligent boy, with an IQ higher than any man. For the first eighteen months, he was bored and lonely as he found the academic work “ridiculously easy”.

As he planned to study cosmology, he had to obtain a first-class degree in order to be accepted as a  graduate in cosmology at the University of Cambridge. However, his final result was on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, so he had to make a viva (oral examination) with the Oxford examiners.

When asked at the viva to describe his plans, he said, “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” As Berman, his Physics tutor commented, the examiners “were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves”. Thus he got into Cambridge.

When Hawking began his doctoral studies, he got inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the centre of black holes. Hawking applied the same thinking to the entire universe; and, in 1965, he wrote his thesis on this topic, which was approved in 1966.

Diagnosis with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

In his third year at Oxford, Stephen Hawking began to experience increasing clumsiness, slurred speech and was eventually diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a motor neurone disease that is commonly associated with the ice bucket challenge. As the disease progresses, the degeneration of motor neurons in the brain interfere with messages to muscles in the body. Eventually, muscular atrophy and voluntary control of the muscles is lost. 

At that time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years. As his illness progressed rapidly, he soon became depressed and could not see the point of working on his PhD since there was a possibility that he might not live long enough to finish it. Although at the start his illness seemed to be progressing at a rapid pace, it eventually slowed down and he found a renewed enthusiasm for his work. Ever since his expectations were reduced to zero, every new day seemed to be a bonus and he realised that there are lots of things he wanted to do before his life was over. As we have all come to know, he went on to live for more than 5 decades before passing away at 76. 

As his physical abilities declined, he began to use crutches and was no longer able to give lectures. However, being fiercely independent, he was unwilling to accept help for disabilities and only agreed to the use of a wheelchair at the end of 1960s after much persuasion. As the years went by, his speech too began to deteriorate and after he contracted pneumonia in mid-1985, he lost his speech completely. 

Upon losing his speech completely, Hawking then relied on raising his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card before finally being able to communicate on his own when Elaine Mason’s husband, David adapted a small computer and attached it to his wheelchair. Gradually, he also lost control of his hand and developed the locked-in syndrome. In order to overcome that, Hawking collaborated with Intel researchers to develop software that translates his brain patterns into switch activations. 

In August 2014, Hawking accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge in order to promote ALS awareness and raise contributions to research. However, having had pneumonia a year prior to that, his children accepted the challenge on his behalf.

Hawking radiation

Stephen Hawking once said, ‘I used to think information was destroyed in black hole. This was my biggest blunder, or at least my biggest blunder in science.’ In 1974, he developed a concept known as the Hawking Radiation. Hawking radiation is the thermal radiation that is theorised to be spontaneously emitted by black holes. This radiation reduces the mass of black holes and therefore, also known as the black hole evaporation. Black holes have temperatures that are inversely proportional to their mass. In layman’s terms, the smaller the black hole, the hotter it glows. 

This discovery of his took people by surprise in the 20th century, and made Hawking rise to fame in the physics industry. Before this, no one would think that black holes have temperature, until Hawking finished the calculation. Although it has never been observed, and it is less likely to be observed in a short time, because it is too small to be observed. But this radiation has been proven by different methods and confirmed by other scientists as well. 

Brief Answers to the Big Questions 

Hawking’s final parting gift to humanity was his book, “Brief Answers to the Big Question” which was published posthumously. Albeit being imprisoned in a wheelchair due to ALS, Hawking’s brain still managed to travel to the confines of space, time and to some of the biggest mysteries of science. According to Freeman Dyson, an English- American theoretical physicist, the Holy Trinity of the 20th century consist of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Hawking. Few, if none would dare argue with him. 

Throughout his book, the questions addressed by Hawking includes: 

  1. Is there a God?
  2. How did it all begin?
  3. Is there other intelligent life in the universe?
  4. Can we predict the future?
  5. What is inside a black hole?
  6. Is time travel possible?
  7. Will we survive on Earth?
  8. Should we colonize space?
  9. Will Artificial intelligence colonize us?
  10. How do we shape the future?

Arguments given to these questions are easy to follow and instead of over-explaining, he simply states the facts as they are. Throughout the book, it is evident Hawking is confident that science has the ability to solve humanity’s biggest problems. Hawking’s optimism permeates through every single page as it continuously urges readers to take the leap, have courage, try to achieve great things and most importantly never give up. 

Stephen Hawking passed away on the 14th of March 2018, 139 years to the day of Einstein’s birth. A remarkable force to be reckoned with, it’s undeniable that he has made such a significant contribution to science and is one of those rare luminaries whose life signifies the best that humanity has to offer. Completely paralyzed and only able to move a few facial muscles, Hawking still continued to persevere on, although he suffered. From his work in cosmology to his astounding human bravery and humour in the face of challenges, he has managed to find ways to reach beyond the limits of knowledge and at the same time surpass the limits of endurance. 

Source: Reddit

As he recounts, Hawking never gave up and is now known for his profound and thought-provoking contributions, which are still debated today.

Written By: Maki, Isabel and Sumitra 

Edited By: Jamie

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