Remembering Professor Stephen Hawking

 

No one undertakes research in physics with the intention of winning a prize. It is the joy of discovering something no one knew before. – Professor Stephen Hawking

Today, 14th March 2018, marks a very sad day in the world of physics and the world in general. One of the greatest mind’s of our time, Professor Stephen Hawking, has passed away.

The world of science and physics has lost one of its greatest champions. Professor Hawking inspired generations of people to start thinking beyond the planet they live on, to gaze further than we ever have, and ask those questions that need answers.

When people think of famous scientists, Professor Hawking is always one of the first people to be mentioned, alongside brilliant minds such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton.

I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein.’ – Professor Stephen Hawking

His story is one of triumph. After being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at the age of 21, doctors did not expect him to live longer than two years. The diagnosis seemed to give him an even stronger zest for life and the disease seemed to progress a little more slowly in Professor Hawking, and he lived to the age of 76.

He was known not only for his brilliance in science, but also for his wicked sense of humour. This is something his family and loved ones have stated that they will miss the most. It’s not everyday one can state that they have featured in The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, as well as having a film made about the early years of your life.

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all. – Professor Stephen Hawking

He penned many books, some of the most famous being “A Brief History of Time,” “The Universe in a Nutshell,” and “A Briefer History of Time.” Along with his papers  and research, these books articulated the physicist’s personal search for science’s Holy Grail: a single unifying theory that can combine cosmology (the study of the big) with quantum mechanics (the study of the small) to explain how the universe began.

When asking our staff members about their own personal memories of Professor Hawking, our colleague Nick Parke mentioned a brilliant documentary called Master of the Universe. He remembers watching this documentary and feeling awed by Professor Hawking’s story.

Research associate Aswin Sekhar gave a link to an article he had written for The Quint. Dr Sekhar talks about his one and only meeting with the great Professor Hawking, and how he was an inspiration not just to him, but to all who had a pleasure of meeting him. You can read the article “An Indian Astrophysicist’s Brief History with Stephen Hawking,” here.

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. – Professor Stephen Hawking

 

The incoming new Head of Research at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, Marc Sarzi, talked about the many brilliant quotes that came from professor Hawking. Not only were they insightful, but profound as well. Marc chose the following as one of his favourites:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking – Professor Stephen Hawking

Michael Burton, now Director of the Observatory and Planetarium, while a student learning his mathematics at Cambridge, remembers Hawking’s presence about the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (or DAMPT as it is fondly remembered!).   Hawking was only famous then to a relatively small number of scientists, not the global figure he later became.  There was a sense of awe when you saw him navigating his wheel chair about the narrow corridors of the Department.  I particularly remember a seminar Hawking gave when I was in the final year of my studies, and thought I perhaps comprehended a little of what Physics was really about.  The title of the seminar was “the wave function of the Universe” – only Hawking could be so bold as to try and solve Schrödinger’s equations for the entire universe, and not just a single atom as our U/G classes would have us tackle!  The seminar room was, of course, absolutely packed, the only time I ever saw it so.  And I understood barely a word of it!  Not that Hawking was difficult to understand, but the concepts were just so far beyond me.

Not long before I left Australia to come to Armagh, Hawking gave the most amazing performance in the Sydney Opera House, again to a packed audience.  He wasn’t there in person – it was too difficult for him to travel across the world by then – so he appeared in hologram!  His daughter compered the performance from the Opera House, and Hawking replied to questions by tapping out the answers using his computer.  We’d just seen extracts from the movie of his life.  It was an amazing and touching occasion, a very special one for all who were there.

To scientists Hawking is perhaps best remembered for the concept of “Hawking radiation”, or what makes Black Holes not so black!  Hawking made headway in tackling what is perhaps the greatest challenge of physics today, tying the large scale, as expressed through General Relativity, to the very small scale, as expressed through the language of Quantum Mechanics.  Hawking’s great idea was to use the concept of pair production through virtual particles, with one entering into the black hole and the other escaping from it, to produce a flood of photons seemingly emitted from the event horizon, and giving rise to the concept of temperature for describing a Black Hole.