Most of us have an inflated perception of ourselves. While we set ourselves up on a pedestal higher than our contemporaries, the world passes by oblivious to our existence. Why wouldn’t it? The world has been and will always be much bigger than us mere individuals. Most of us struggle to comprehend how insignificant we are in the larger universe. Cosmologists, though, have an entirely different perspective on this matter. Their entire professional life is dedicated to understanding the vast space that surrounds our minor planet which revolves around a very average star.
One cosmologist’s work in particular has inspired not only the scientific community, but the general public as well. Stephen Hawking, who was born on Galileo’s 300th death anniversary, is regarded as one of the smartest people of the 20th century. For reasons within his control and beyond, he had been the poster child of science and astrophysics for decades. He broadened our understanding of the universe and took us a step closer to unlocking deeper mysteries of our origin. Even after his death in 2018, Stephen Hawking continues to inspire the world through his last book, which was published posthumously, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.
Stephen Hawking (CBE) was more than just an accomplished academician. A large part of his fame and his public persona was fuelled by his struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). In 1963, at the promising age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with this disease that affects the nervous system and weakens muscles thereby severely affecting physical function. Within 6 years, Hawking was relegated to a wheelchair as his control over his movements and his speech began fading. Following a tracheotomy in 1985, Hawking lost his voice permanently.
However, by his own admission, Hawking’s best work was done only after his diagnosis. He said, “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.” In an almost superhuman feat of willpower and human collaboration, Stephen Hawking began working harder towards his doctorate and his thesis with the help from his graduate students and his family. With the help from a programmer from MIT, Hawking made use of a unique text-to-speech algorithm that helped him communicate with the world, and churn out paper after paper. When he could no longer use his fingers to type on a keyboard, he started using his cheekbone to interact with his computer.
What is inspiring is that for the 55 years from his diagnosis of this debilitating disease right until his death, Stephen Hawking never showed signs of slowing down. He has published 15 books and has authored or co-authored more than 200 papers. He has been the foremost authority on black holes in the world; he was elected to the Royal Society as one of its youngest fellows; he was appointed to the prestigious Lucasian professorship of mathematics, a position once held by Isaac Newton; he was made a Commander of the British Empire, and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Even after his death, Stephen Hawking continues to inspire not just academics with his research, but also the general masses with his tales of fortitude and courage.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”Stephen Hawking
It is easy to get swept up in emotion and remember Stephen Hawking for his tireless fight against ALS. One main reason for this is because his work and its implications are a bit out of grasp for the non-academic common public. One of the biggest aspirations in theoretical physics today is to conceive of a unified theory of physics, popularly known as the theory of everything (which was incidentally also the name of the movie based on Hawking’s life). General relativity deals with gravitational interactions on a scale as large as galaxies and solar systems, whereas quantum mechanics works on the sub-atomic scale. Stephen Hawking was one of the first theoretical physicists to try and relate the two when he discovered the famous Hawking radiation. Not only did he mathematically prove that a black hole, previously thought to emit nothing and absorb everything, can emit radiation and heat, but also that it is possible to theoretically combine the two great pillars of theoretical physics — gravity and quantum mechanics.
Another stellar contribution made by Hawking was to settle the age old debate of whether our universe had a beginning (Big Bang theory) or is infinitely old (Steady State theory). Hawking’s work with black holes and singularity theorems has proved beyond a doubt that the universe came into existence from a single point of infinite energy and density about 13.5 billion years ago. Countless academics and researchers have built upon these discoveries by Stephen Hawking over the last few decades. Even the movie Interstellar is partially indebted to Hawking and his research.
Stephen Hawking was clearly passionate about sharing his research in a language that most people could understand regardless of their educational backgrounds. He worked hard to bridge the gap between theoretical physics and the general public. His bestselling book, A Brief History of Time, is a testament to that. The book captured an entire generation’s imagination and has sold more than 20 million copies till date, and has spent 147 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Such was Stephen Hawking’s superstardom and amiability that he repeatedly appeared as himself in works of popular culture. From making a regular guest appearance on The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory, to being featured in a Pink Floyd Song, to appearing in a fictional hologram with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he became a household name. Stephen Hawking’s universal appeal is a big step to getting the world more interested in STEM studies and also sensitising the general population about serious diseases like ALS.
On March 14, 2018, the world lost a funny, humble and smart individual. There can be no better way to honour his memory than to live by his principles which transcend the boundaries of physics and inspire us to be better humans. I am motivated daily by one of my favourite quotes from Stephen Hawking — “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.”
Aditya Mani is a writing analyst at Qrius.