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Stephen Hawking: A brief history of his genius

“My goal is simple … it is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Image: U. Baumgarten via Getty Images

STEPHEN HAWKING WAS Britain’s most famous modern day scientist, a genius who dedicated his life to unlocking the secrets of the Universe.

Born on January 8, 1942 – 300 years to the day after the death of the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei – he believed science was his destiny.

Even though his body was attacked by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Motor Neurone Disease, when Hawking was 21, he stunned doctors by living with the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years.

A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesiser that gave him his distinctive robotic monotone.

Much of Hawking’s work was in the field of cosmology, a deep-thinking branch of astronomy that tries to explain the totality of the universe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, said: “We claim him as an astrophysicist because his laboratory was the universe.” Hawking said:

My goal is simple … it is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.

Creation of the Universe 

Hawking first gained prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as “Hawking radiation”.

“It came as a complete surprise,” said Gary Horowitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It really was quite revolutionary”.

Horowitz said the find helped move scientists one step closer to cracking the unified theory.

Much of his work centred on bringing together relativity – the nature of space and time and quantum theory (how the smallest particles in the Universe behave) to explain the creation of the Universe and how it is governed.

In 1974, he became one of the youngest fellows of Britain’s most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, at the age of 32.

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking Cosmologist Stephen Hawking on October 10, 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey Source: Getty Images

In 1979 he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, where he had moved from Oxford University to study theoretical astronomy and cosmology.

As one of Isaac Newton’s successors in this role, Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a “unified theory”.

Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects like planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.

For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest — he said finding a “theory of everything” would allow mankind to “know the mind of God”.

Complete understanding 

His 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” sought to explain to non-scientists the fundamental theories of the universe and it became an international bestseller, bringing him global acclaim.

He sold nine million copies of the book, though many readers didn’t finish it as his work was often too complicated for most people to understand. The book has been called “the least-read best-seller ever”.

He used to start his layman’s lectures on black holes with the joke: ”I assume you all have read ‘A Brief History of Time’ and understood it.”

“It always got a big laugh” according to Andy Fabian, an astronomer at Hawking’s University of Cambridge and president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“You’d find the average astronomer such as myself doesn’t even try to follow the more esoteric theories … I’ve been to talks Hawking has given and cannot follow them myself.”

Dr Stephen Hawking, 1988 Hawking at Cambridge University in 1988 Source: Getty Images

In A Brief History of Time, Hawking wrote:

A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.

In later years, though, he suggested a unified theory might not exist.

In 2004, he announced that he had revised his previous view that objects sucked into black holes simply disappeared, perhaps to enter an alternate universe. Instead, he said he believed objects could be spit out of black holes in a mangled form.

That new theory capped his three-decade struggle to explain a paradox in scientific thinking: How can objects really “disappear” inside a black hole and leave no trace, as he long believed, when subatomic theory says matter can be transformed but never fully destroyed?

He followed up A Brief History of Time in 2001 with the more accessible sequel The Universe in a Nutshell, updating readers on concepts like super gravity, naked singularities and the possibility of an 11-dimensional universe.

And in 2007, Hawking also published a children’s book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, with his daughter, Lucy, seeking to explain the workings of the solar system, asteroids, his pet subject of black holes and other celestial bodies.

‘Inspiration to people with disease’

Hawking eventually put Newton’s gravitational theories to the test in 2007 when, aged 65, he went on a weightless flight in the United States as a prelude to a hoped-for sub-orbital spaceflight.

Characteristically, he did not see the trip as a mere birthday present.

Instead, he said he wanted to show that disability was no bar to achievement and to encourage interest in space, where he believed humankind’s destiny lay.

Richard Green, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association said Hawking met the classic definition of the disease, as “the perfect mind trapped in an imperfect body”. He said Hawking had been an inspiration to people with the disease for many years.

At the time Hawking said: “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.

I believe life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers.

More recently he said artificial intelligence (AI) could contribute to the eradication of disease and poverty, while warning of its potential dangers.

At the opening of a new AI research centre at Cambridge University in 2016, he said:

In short, success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation.

“Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many.”

BRITAIN-SCIENCE-UNIVERSITY Hawking at the Future of Intelligence (CFI), at the University of Cambridge Source: AFP/Getty Images

‘Miss him forever’

Hawking’s genius brought him global fame and he become known as a witty communicator dedicated to bringing science to a wider audience.

Hawking also moved into popular culture, with cameos in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons”, while his voice appeared in Pink Floyd songs.

Beyond scientific debate Hawking also weighed into politics, describing Donald Trump as “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator” ahead of his election as US president.

Hawking also warned Britain ahead of the Brexit referendum in 2016 against leaving the European Union: “Gone are the days when we could stand on our own against the world.”

In a statement his children Lucy, Robert and Tim said, “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.

His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.

Additional reporting by Cliódhna Russell and Associated Press. 

Read: ‘What a remarkable life’: World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died aged 76>

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