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Stephen Hawking: A Cosmic Genius

Stephen Hawking
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With his death, it is as if a portal has now opened to the multiverse that was his mind

IN 1993, STEPHEN Hawking made a cameo appearance in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a hologram of himself. Playing poker with an android and with holograms of Einstein and Newton, Hawking joked that he “beat them all, but unfortunately there was a red alert, so I never collected my winnings”. No matter what the book jackets and the reviews tell you, Stephen William Hawking was not the greatest physicist since Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. But he was the most popular, anointed with honorary doctorates, awards and a Playboy interview. As every bio ever written on Hawking exults, he was born exactly three centuries after Galileo died. But more importantly, he ushered in another kind of scientific revolution: he made cosmology accessible. Mathematician, writer, media darling and without contest the world’s funniest physicist, Hawking, who died at 76 on March 14th, worked on abstract problems but introduced some of the cooler aspects of the universe to the common man.

As a graduate student at Cambridge in the early 60s, Hawking, diagnosed with ALS, wallowing in Wagner and about to fall in love for the first time, became interested in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, a theory that predicts its own breakdown—when there is a gravitational collapse of massive stars, or in the early universe when the density and temperature of matter were extreme. Hawking and Roger Penrose, with whom he shared the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics for their contribution to our understanding of the universe, probed these kinks in the geometry of spacetime, and argued that black holes do exist—years before they would be discovered by astronomers.

‘It seems Einstein was doubly wrong when he said, God does not play dice. Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen,’ Hawking wrote. He wasn’t one to stop looking. Overlaying quantum effects on top of general relativity, Hawking worked on some tricky math problems to explain how black holes radiate energy, refuting his own older theories. He also admitted in a talk in Chicago that he had been wrong about the reversal of the arrows of time in a contracting universe. “I once thought there ought to be a journal of recantations, in which scientists could admit their mistakes. But it might not have many contributors,” he said.

Three decades after Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, outlining the evolution of his thinking about the universe for a general audience, it remains a classic read on what lurks in the margins of our cosmic diagrams. It makes us dwell on life’s big questions: Is time travel possible? Do aliens exist? Is the universe still expanding? Hawking was fascinated not only by the shape of time, but also by our perception of reality. He invoked the example of a goldfish in a curved fishbowl, writing that ‘our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through’.

Our perception of Hawking is shaped more by his books and public appearances than by his science. “I am sure my disability has a bearing on why I am well known,” he told the BBC. His wheelchair and synthesised voice came to define him, although his work did not slow with his motor neuron disease, two failed marriages, and unprecedented celebrity. His sense of humour, too, was intact through all of this. He made feisty bets, lost more often than he won—famously losing a bet to physicist Kip Thorne over whether Cynus X-1 was a black hole, at stake being a year’s subscription of Penthouse—and in 2009, claimed to have hosted a party for time travellers, posting the invitation after the event (“I sat there a long time, but no one came,” he said). With his death, it is as if a portal has now opened to the multiverse that was his mind. Dive right in.