A great scientific luminary has passed. Physicist and science icon Stephen Hawking died quietly at his home on March 13. His ground-breaking work on black holes revolutionized our understanding of cosmology. As a man he was known for his sense of humor, playful character, and love of life and learning.
Prior to Hawking’s seminal work on black holes, much of which was done early in his career, physicists believed that nothing could escape the incredibly powerful gravitational well of a black hole. But he discovered that some energy, aptly named Hawking radiation, actually leaked back out. The implications for physics and our understanding of gravity are immense.
As his career progressed Hawking worked tirelessly to develop a “theory of everything,” attempting to unify the two great branches of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, a task to which Einstein also aspired. The esteemed scientist held the same academic position as Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, once did centuries earlier: the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University—-a great honor.
As a 21-year-old university undergraduate Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating neurological disease that left him wheel-chair bound and almost completely paralyzed. Nonetheless he persevered, living a very full life. He fathered children, married twice, enjoyed a phenomenally successful scientific career, authored books, and reaped the rewards of international celebrity. ALS is usually fatal within a few years of diagnosis, but Hawking lived for an unprecedented 55 years following his diagnosis.
And he wrote best-selling books, including A brief history of time and a briefer history of time that informed and delighted the public. He made guest appearances on several popular television shows over the years, including Star Trek the Next Generation, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory. His public lectures packed in the crowds, and he became one of the most recognizable and popular scientists of the 20th century.
In later years he advocated for some controversial but interesting views, like the need to establish human colonies on mars and other planets in order to make humanity a multi-planet species, and his concern that contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would spell disaster for mankind. Both positions were well thought out and taken in order to maximize the survival of the human species over great spans of time.
Stephen Hawking was a true original, a scientific genius who made numerous contributions to science, popular culture, education and entertainment. And his very public struggle with ALS, and remarkable survivability, inspired millions battling life-challenging illnesses. He will be greatly missed.
Photo: By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons