Farewell, Dr. Hawking: Newton’s heir dies at 76
Stephen Hawking was one of the brightest stars in the scientific firmament, but no star can burn forever. Sadly, The British cosmologist, who once held the same faculty chair as Sir Isaac Newton, passed in his sleep the early morning of March 14th. He was 76.
To physicists, Stephen Hawking was the man who shaved black holes. He did not coin the phrase “black holes have no hair” to describe the idea that information lost into a black hole vanishes forever, but he did prove the theorem mathematically. He discovered “Hawking Radiation” in the process. He was also amongst the first to try seriously to unify the two great pillars of Modern Physics (Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity) in a single description of the universe. The list of Dr. Hawking’s contributions would be impressive for anyone. For a man who never expected to see his 50s, much less his 70s, it is astounding.
Stephen Hawking had a rare form of early-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that began to paralyze him in his early 20s. Following the diagnosis, he nearly left graduate school, afraid the disease would rob him of the time to have a meaningful scientific career. It was, perhaps, the only time Dr. Hawking was truly and completely wrong.
Even after he began to use a wheelchair and lost his ability to speak—he famously communicated through a text-to-speech device controlled via a muscle in his cheek for much of his life—his scientific work only continued to improve. He not only held down the most prestigious professorship in Physics (the Lucian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, once held by Sir Isaac Newton), he also became a globe trotting celebrity.
When in Sudbury in 1998, he plumbed the depths of Creighton Mine to visit the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, 2km underground.(He visited us again in 2012, after the observatory had become SNOLab, but I was not in attendance.)
While in Sudbury the first time, he also lectured to a packed hall at Science North- the first, and only time I was able to see the great man. The hall was packed because Dr. Hawking was as beloved by the general public as he is respected by his fellow physicists.
His 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” remains a classic, and put him in on the New York Times bestseller list. (A first, for a theoretical physicist. Other firsts include appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory.) It is for his books and his tireless efforts at communicating the advanced science that was his life’s work that earned Dr. Hawking his place in our hearts, and why his passing will be mourned by millions.
On a personal note, Stephen Hawking changed my life. I read a “A Brief History of Time” when I was 10, and it changed my life. More than anyone else, Dr. Hawking is the man who inspired me to become a physicist, and a science communicator. A generation of scientists can say the same thing. That is perhaps Dr. Hawking’s greatest legacy. As he was fond of saying, “we stand upon the shoulders of giants”—he was, undoubtably, one of those, and we now see much further, standing on his withered shoulders.
A star has gone out, it is true, but its light will shine forever onwards into the universe. Farewell, Dr. Hawking. You shall be missed.