Stephen Hawking: A brief history of the physicist

Stephen Hawking: A brief history of the physicist

Stephen HawkingAFP / Getty

Hawking was a rationalist, believing that human existence could be explained through sound science

The world lost a great mind but we also lost an icon. 

As a cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s work shaped our understanding of the stuff that makes the universe: black holes, spacetime, quantum gravity – the kind of concepts that easily get thrown around in science fiction but are rather more complicated in reality. 

He’s probably best known in the scientific world for his ideas about black holes. 

Deep in space, black holes are incredibly dense pockets formed when a star collapses in on itself. 

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And because they’re so dense they have a very strong gravitational pull. 

So strong in fact that even light can’t escape. 

It’s a bit like a huge, airy building that collapses into a compact pile of rubble – it’s going to be tricky for anything to get out of the mess. 

Most people thought that nothing could escape the powerful pull of a black hole. 

Stephen Hawking: A life in picturesWed, March 14, 2018World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died age 76. Take a look at his life in pictures
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking on October 10, 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey

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Cosmologist Stephen Hawking on October 10, 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey

But then Hawking showed that it was possible for a type of radiation (now known as Hawking radiation) to leak out over a very long time, eventually leading to the black hole disappearing entirely. 

For a black hole created by the collapse of a star the size of our sun this vanishing act would take longer than the age of the universe. 

But Hawking pointed out that it was perfectly possible for smaller black holes to have already formed and vanished, each one releasing as much energy as a million atom bombs in its final death throes. 

Hawking also showed that the Big Bang theory – the idea that the universe started from a single point that exploded – was physically possible and not just a theoretical quirk arising from the complicated equations that mathematicians were using to explain space and time. 

He also spent much of the later part of his life trying to come up with a grand “theory of everything”, which would bring together all the competing explanations of how the universe works.

It’s at this point I should probably make a confession: I have never read A Brief History Of Time, Hawking’s bestselling book about the equations that underpin the universe. 

While many of my colleagues in the scientific community claim to have made their way through it, I’m not even going to pretend that I have. 

Mainly because thinking about maths makes my brain itch. 

Stephen HawkingJIM HOLLANDER

The physicist 'illuminated the hidden world of theoretical physics' through public outreach

It turns out I’m not alone. 

A Brief History is widely regarded as the most unread book in history – a mathematician even developed the Hawking Index to work out the point at which people give up reading a book. 

But speaking as someone who spends their life trying to communicate complex concepts about DNA and genes to the public I’m grateful that he wrote it in the first place. 

Although his scientific work was incredibly important I believe that Hawking’s real stroke of genius was to embrace his role as the public face of physics with enthusiasm and humour. 

Too many world-leading scientists have preferred to stay inside the ivory tower, hiding away with their theorems and jargon. 

Ironically for someone who spent his life wrestling with abstract, invisible concepts such as spacetime, Hawking’s key legacy is as someone who invaded popular culture and made hidden things brightly visible.

FOR A START he illuminated the hidden world of theoretical physics through his book and numerous public talks. 

But Hawking was more than just a public communicator of cosmology: he became a kind of cultural shorthand for science, with a list of high-profile media appearances that would make any A-list celebrity envious. 

Hawking was the only person to appear on Star Trek as himself, playing a high-stakes holographic poker game with Einstein, Newton and Lieutenant Commander Data. 

He turned up in The Simpsons, Futurama and (rightly enough) The Big Bang Theory is currently heard in the new version of Radio 4’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, made his own version of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song and was immortalised in documentaries, a TV biopic and the Oscar-winning film The Theory Of Everything. 

He even said he wouldn’t have minded a stint on Keeping Up With The Kardashians. 

Another thing he made visible was his disability. 

Stephen Hawking at National Portrait GalleryPA

Hawking and Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery in 1992

Hawking showed that his physical disability was no barrier to his scientific life

Kat Arney

While Hawking’s mind roamed among the stars, trying to make sense of the universe, his body suffered. 

Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 he was given only two years to live but defied the odds to survive for another five decades. 

It’s impossible to think of Hawking without his chunky motorised wheelchair and voice synthesiser but it made no difference to his work as a scientist or communicator. 

It’s just how he was. 

There’s a lot more that can be done to increase the participation and profile of disabled people in all areas of life but Hawking showed that his physical disability was no barrier to his scientific life and campaigned for disability rights and recognition. 

Finally, Hawking was an icon of rationalism, believing that the explanation for our existence lay in sound science rather than superstition. 

As I reflect on his death I keep coming back to a quote he gave to the German newspaper Der Spiegel in 1988: “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.”

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