The motor neuron disorder ALS has confined Hawking to a wheelchair, but it hasn’t stopped him from working on the nature of the universe
Did time ever exist in reality?
That’s a stupid question to ask, you would say, and surreptitiously catch a glance of your watch, where “time” is etched in numbers... seconds, minutes, hours... and irritated why I am holding you back from walking out to catch the 10.15 am Yellow Line metro. Time is all on your wrist, and in the metro clocks, isn’t it?
Stephen Hawking, considered the Einstein protegee of this generation, says time did not exist before the Big Bang, and thus, the study of the ‘beginning of the universe’ is meaningless.
Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. He attended University College, Oxford, where he studied physics, despite his father’s urging to focus on medicine. Hawking went on to Cambridge to research cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole.
After gaining his Ph.D, he became first a Research Fellow and later on a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. After leaving the Institute of Astronomy in 1973, Stephen came to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1979, and held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from 1979 until 2009.
During his first year of Ph.D, Hawking started to show abnormal physical symptoms; he would suddenly trip and fall or his speech slurred. He suppressed these symptoms but when his father noticed them, he was sent for a series of tests. It was diagnosed that he was in the early stages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which meant that the part of his nervous system that was responsible for muscle control was shutting down — a life threatening condition.
He was not expected to live more than two years. Completing his doctorate did not appear likely. Yet, Hawking defied the odds, not only attaining his Ph.D. but also forging new roads into the understanding of the universe in the decades since.
As the disease spread, Hawking became less mobile and began using a wheelchair. Talking grew more challenging and, in 1985, an emergency tracheotomy caused his total loss of speech. A speech-generating device constructed at Cambridge, combined with a software programme, serves as his electronic voice today, allowing Hawking to select his words by moving the muscles in his cheek.
He met his first wife, Jane Wilde, a friend of his sister, shortly before the diagnosis of his illness. The couple got married in 1965. They had three children together: Robert, Lucy and Timothy.
Hawking became a member of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge in 1968 and the discoveries of cosmologist, Roger Penrose, on black hole really fascinated him as he himself was working on the phenomena that began the Universe.
With James Bardeen and Brandon Carter, Stephen Hawking discovered the four laws of black hole mechanics. These laws are physical properties that black holes are believed to satisfy and are analogous to the laws of thermodynamics. In January 1971, his essay titled “Black Holes” won the prestigious Gravity Research Foundation Award.
Over the course of his career, Hawking studied the basic laws governing the universe. He proposed that since the universe boasts a beginning — the Big Bang — it likely will have an ending. Working with fellow cosmologist Roger Penrose, he demonstrated that Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity suggests that space and time began at the birth of the universe and ends within black holes, which implies that Einstein’s theory and quantum theory must be united.
Hawking’s first major work was published with Roger Penrose, a physicist very famous in his own right, and George Ellis, during the period 1968-1970. They demonstrated that every solution to the equations of general relativity guarantees the existence of a singular boundary for space and time in the past. This is now known as the “singularity theorem,” and is a tremendously important finding.
Later, working by himself, in 1974, he begun to formulate ideas the quantum evaporation of exploding black holes, the now famous “Hawking radiation.” These are all tremendously important scientific works.
In 1984 Stephen worked with James Hartle, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Using an elegant vacuum fluctuation model, they were able to provide a mathematical rationalise for the entire universe popping into existence at the beginning of time. This is also called the “universe as a wave function.”
Hawking visited Moscow in 1973 and his discussions with Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich and Alexei Starobinsky helped him to come up with ‘Hawking radiation’. In the following year, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In 2014, Hawking revised his theory, even writing that “there are no black holes” — at least, in the way that cosmologists traditionally understand them. His theory removed the existence of an “event horizon,” the point where nothing can escape. Instead, he proposed that there would be an “apparent horizon” that would alter according to quantum changes within the black hole. But the theory remains controversial
Hawking also proposed that the universe itself has no boundary, much like the Earth. Although the planet is finite, one can travel around it (and through the universe) infinitely, never encountering a wall that would be described as the “end.”
He started to get more recognition for his discoveries through his print and TV interviews and in 1975 he was awarded the Eddington Medal and the Pius XI Gold Medal, followed by the Dannie Heineman Prize, the Maxwell Prize, etc.
He published a model, the ‘Hartle-Hawking state’ with Jim Hartle, which stated that before the Big Bang, time did not exist and the concept of the beginning of the universe is meaningless.
In 1985, he lost his voice after a tracheotomy. As a result of this, he required 24-hour care. His condition caught the attention of a Californian computer programmer, who invented a speaking program that could be directed by head or eye movement.
Hawking is a popular writer. His first book, “A Brief History of Time” (10th anniversary edition: Bantam, 1998) was first published in 1988 and became an international best seller. In it, Hawking aimed to communicate questions about the birth and death of the universe to the layperson. Since then, Hawking has gone on to write other nonfiction books aimed at nonscientists. These include “A Briefer History of Time,” “The Universe in a Nutshell,” “The Grand Design” and “On the Shoulders of Giants.”
He and his daughter, Lucy Hawking, have also created a fictional series of books for middle school children on the creation of the universe, including “George and the Big Bang” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
Hawking has made several television appearances, including a playing hologram of himself on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a cameo on the television show “Big Bang Theory.” PBS presented an educational miniseries titled “Stephen Hawking’s Universe”, which probes the theories of the cosmologist. In 2014, a movie based on Hawking’s life was released. Called “The Theory of Everything”, the film drew praise from Hawking, who said it made him reflect on his own life. “Although I’m severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work,” Hawking wrote on Facebook in November 2014. “I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero-gravity flight. One day, I hope to go into space.”
Professor Hawking has twelve honorary degrees. In 1974, a few weeks after the announcement of the Hawking radiation, Stephen Hawking became one of the youngest persons to be elected to the Royal Society of London. In 1982 he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen. In 1985, he was given the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the highest award given by the RAS. In 1987, he was awarded the Paul Dirac Medal by the Institute of Physics for his outstanding contributions to theoretical physics. In 1988, Hawking and Penrose were given the Wolf Prize, a prestigious international award granted in Israel.
In a 2002 poll conducted by BBC in the United Kingdom to determine whom the public considered as the greatest British people in history, Stephen Hawking ranked 25. In 2006, he was awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society. In 2009, US President Barack Obama presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. In 2013, Stephen Hawking was awarded the Russian Special Fundamental Physics Prize, which has been dubbed by the media as the ‘XXI Century Nobel’.
Stephen W. Hawking Science Museum in San Salvador, El Salvador, the Stephen Hawking Building in Cambridge and the Stephen Hawking Centre at Perimeter Institute in Canada—are all named after him. He participated in zero-gravity flight in a ‘Vomit Comet’, courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation, during which he experienced weightlessness eight times in 2007. Hawking believes that human life is at risk and said that “a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of” can wipe us off the earth.
Hawking’s quotes range from notable to poetic to controversial.
“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? “
“All of my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars, and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist.”
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
And there are many more…
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved