Scientist who refined cosmology dies

Stephen Hawking overcame degenerative motor neuron disease to probe mysteries of cosmos

Stephen Hawking overcame degenerative motor neuron disease to probe mysteries of cosmos

London: Stephen Hawking, legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking who redefined cosmology, died on March 14 at his home in Cambridge in England. He was 76.

His family said the renowned British scientist died peacefully.

If one had to name only three physicists who touch the lives of people beyond the limits of labs and universities, the answer, without any hesitation, could be Newton, Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

Unlike Newton and Einstein, who contributed to a wide range of fields, Hawking focused on cosmology where he made significant contributions ever since his graduate student days in Cambridge University, UK.

Stephen Hawking’s works include the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, often called Hawking radiation. He was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He was a supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Much of his work was focused on bringing together relativity — the nature of space and time — and quantum theory — how the smallest particles in the Universe behave — to explain how the universe was created.

He was born on January 8, 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei.

Hawking spent most of his life in a wheelchair and communicated using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device after a rare, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) gradually paralyzed him over the decades.
His book “A Brief History of Time” is one of the world’s most popular books on enduring bestsellers.

In 2007, Stephen Hawking published a children’s book, “George’s Secret Key to the Universe,” with his daughter, Lucy. The book explained to children the workings of the universe, mainly the solar system, asteroids and black holes.

Hawking married Jane Wilde in 1965 and had three children. The couple split after 25 years and he married his former nurse, Elaine Mason, but they split amid allegations – denied by Hawking – that he was abused.

In 1962, one day he had difficulty tying his shoelaces. It was no small problem and he was diagnosed with ALS. Doctors gave him two years to live. He was then just over 22 years. He did go into a depression, doubly so because his dream of working with the famous cosmologist Fred Hoyle in Cambridge did not materialize.

It was then that his relationship with Jane Wilde, whom he later married, deepened and helped pull him out. He went on to do his PhD under the supervision of Dennis Sciama in Cambridge University’s physics department.

However, Hawking ended up refuting Hoyle’s ideas in his PhD thesis itself. The dominant paradigm of the universe at the time Hawking began his PhD was the Steady State theory of the universe, of which Hoyle was a major proponent.

In papers published in the late 1940s, Hoyle argued that the universe had no beginning. Despite evidence that galaxies are moving away from each other, he argued that more matter was being created that kept the overall density a constant. This theory was a serious contender to the Big Bang theory. In fact, Hoyle was the one who in 1950s coined the term, ‘Big Bang’, though derisively.

When Hawking came into the picture, he was influenced by the work of Roger Penrose, who was an applied mathematician working on singularity theory. Sciama drew Penrose’s attention towards stars and black holes and the latter came up with the theory that if a star collapses beyond a point, it would be unable to stop this. With general theory of relativity, it could only reach an infinite density at the end of the process, or a singularity.

Hawking got interested in this work and applied it to the whole universe. He came up with the result that if general relativity was correct, there must have been a point far back where there must have been such a singularity. This was his contribution to the Big Bang cosmology and for which he got his PhD.

This work, early in his career, was just one step but a big one in making him an internationally known scientist.

Even though his theory is now firmly accepted in theoretical physics, there was no way to verify if black holes are mortal, according to Timothy Ferris, author of ‘The Science of Liberty’.

“Black holes are too long-lived to be observed today in their death throes,” Ferris wrote in The National Geographic.

“Hawking probably would have won the prize had nature provided observational confirmation. But that won’t happen for billions of years, not until the first star-size black holes start exploding,” according to Ferris.

While Hawking may not have won the coveted Nobel Prize, he, however, has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1982 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985.

He was also a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the US National Academy of Science.

The world-famous physicist and cosmologist was the subject of the 2014 film ‘The Theory Of Everything’, which starred Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

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