The late Stephen Hawking, known for his work in theoretical physics, passed away early last Wednesday morning at the age of 76 in his home in Cambridge according to his family. Hawking worked as a world famous theoretical physicist who was born January 7, 1942 in Oxford, England. During the early years of his schooling, he bounced around between several different schools due to financial and family issues before he was finally able to settle down at St. Albans School in London. Although Hawking had difficulties learning how to read and wasn’t all that successful with his academics, it was at St. Albans that his love of and interest in science and physics first started to develop. Hawking followed his father’s footsteps and studied physics and chemistry at University College in Oxford at the young age of 17. Hawking eventually developed a mischievous reputation and was known for being extremely intelligent – to the point where, when taking an oral exam as part of one of his final exams, those in charge of the exam acknowledged that he was smarter than most of those present in the room.
Hawking went on to pursue a graduate degree in cosmology at the University of Cambridge and initially struggled due to a poor background in mathematics before he went on to earn a PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics. It was during this time that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s (also known as motor neurone disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or “ALS”). Initially, his doctors predicted that he only had two years to live when he was first diagnosed with the disease despite it progressing more slowly than what they had first thought. Throughout his graduate career, Hawking was awarded with fellowships and a prestigious award known as the Adams Prize.
After earning his PhD, Hawking started his career in 1966 with continuing to develop and build on theories he pursued during his graduate and doctoral degrees. One such theory was the singularity theorem, which theorized the existence of singularities and the idea that the universe started out as a singularity as a way of explaining how the universe was created. Another theory that Hawking developed early on in his career was the second law of black hole dynamics, which explained how an event horizon (AKA, the “point of no return,” or the very outer edge where even light and radiation can’t escape) of a black hole cannot become smaller than it already is. Hawking then went on to study quantum gravity and quantum mechanics, which he found contradicted the second law of black hole dynamics that he had previously developed. Eventually, he found that black holes emit radiation (now known as Hawking radiation), a kind of radiation that continues and eventually exhausts a black hole of its energy, causing it to evaporate.
By the mid-1970s, Hawking returned to the University of Cambridge – this time as a faculty member and professor of gravitational physics. During his time as a professor, he was awarded with several awards, including the Albert Einstein Medal, and an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Oxford. Hawking proposed several theories and ideas about physics and black holes, most notably the N=8 Supergravity theory (meant to be a theory that could solve a number of outstanding problems that physicists were studying at the time) and the idea that when black holes lost of all their information after it evaporates, that information is irretrievable – a suggestion which sparked years of debate in the physics community.
The rest of Hawking’s career was spent researching quantum physics, black holes, and quantum mechanics. He worked to bring his theories and scientific research to the public to build interest in the field of science and physics, with some of his more notable works being A Brief History of Time (initially written as a book and later produced as a film with the help of Errol Morris and Stephen Spielberg), several talks, and a six-part television series. Although there were multiple debates spanning multiple decades on whether or not Hawking was right on his research and theories of black holes, Hawking was still awarded with several prestigious awards for his work in physics and his research on the existence of black holes during his long career.
As for his personal life, Hawking tended to be more private and withdrawn from the public eye. He was married twice (once in 1965, and again in 1995 with both marriages ending in divorce), and had several children and grandchildren with his first wife, Jane Hawking (nee Wilde). Hawking additionally spent time outside of his work on physics and black holes advocating for people with disabilities and working with IBM on technology that would allow him and others diagnosed with ALS more accessibility in terms of moving around and communicating with others. His advocacy work included calling for more protections and preventative measures for people with disabilities, as well as showing that people with disabilities still had a lot of potential in terms of living life and working in areas and fields that were “off-limits” for those with disabilities.
Despite wanting privacy in his personal life, Hawking was not shy on sharing his opinion on philosophy, religion, and politics. Hawking worked to point out the shortcomings of philosophy, and how he thought that it had failed to keep up with all of the technological, cultural, and social changes of the past century or so. Additionally, he was unafraid to state that he was an atheist and believed in science more than any deity – that the science and the laws of science will win over any religion or deity because “they are based on observation and reason. [They] will win because [they] work.” Hawking was not afraid to shy away from the fact that he leaned more to the left of the political spectrum, and he was quite vocal about his support for the parties and policies on the left since he saw them as working for more humane and environmental protections and benefits. And he was open about being concerned about the issues of global warming and lowering the risk of a genetically-engineered supervirus and nuclear war, among other things – all of which are ideas and issues that tend to be classified as more “leftist” and “liberal” ideas and concerns rather than “conservative” ideas and concerns.