6 months ago

In honor of Stephen Hawking. One of the greatest minds of our time.

The cosmologist not only overturned our imaginations, he became an icon of mystery, curiosity and determination to understand this place we are in.

Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s great physicists, has died today. On Einstein’s birthday and Pi day. The groundbreaking physicist was 76.

Stephen Hawking (Lucasian Professor of Maths, Cambridge) was one of leading authorities in cosmology and theoretical physics. In honor of Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time, we share this article today from Dennis Overbye, Cosmic Affairs Correspondent @NYTimes.com

Stephen Hawking, Pop Culture Icon

Stephen Hawking Taught Us a Lot About How to Live

By Dennis Overbye – nytimes.com

Stephen Hawking, the English cosmologist and black hole maven, liked to say he was born 300 years to the day after Galileo died, and he died on Wednesday, 139 years after Albert Einstein was born.

That was a fitting bookend.

In the popular press, he was often referred to as the greatest physicist since Einstein. That, he always said, was media hype, driven by the public’s thirst for heroes.

As someone who might have contributed in some small way over the years to this impression, I have to say I agree. History will pass judgment on that dubious and problematic distinction.

But Dr. Hawking’s life was Einsteinian and he was a hero, not just for what he taught about the universe, but for what he taught us about how to live.

Whether or not he overturned the universe, he did overturn our imaginations. To the public, however, he was, in Homer Simpson’s words, “the wheelchair guy,” who despite being slowly paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to the point where he could only move only an eyeball, roamed the world and figuratively the universe, married twice, fathered three children, wrote best-sellers and nurtured generations of graduate students.


Dr. Hawking receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America.

He was the kind of guy who showed up at his own 60th birthday party with a broken leg after flipping his wheelchair trying to take a street corner too fast, a guy whose eyes lit up with a mischievous grin at good and bad jokes. He mingled with kings and presidents and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. He had hoped someday to take a trip to the edge of space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship.

He preferred to be called Stephen. He was proud of being a family man.

“His sense of humor was legendary,” said Kip Thorne, his old friend and recent Nobel laureate from Caltech, with whom he collaborated on the seeds of what would become the movie “Interstellar.” “When he started a sentence, laboriously on his computer, I never knew whether it would end in a deep pearl of wisdom or an off-the-wall joke,” Dr. Thorne said in an email.

Stephen Hawking explains black holes in 90 seconds

To scientists, however, he will be forever known for finding a relation between gravity — in the form of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — that bends the cosmos and determines its destiny and the atomic randomness that lives inside it, swept helplessly along in the river of time.

Like Einstein, and Galileo, he did his greatest work on gravity, a force we all feel in our bones, a force that, Einstein decreed, would even bend starlight, leaving, “lights all askew in the heavens.”

As a result, Dr. Hawking became an icon of mystery and curiosity and determination to understand this place we are in.

“Determination” is the key word here. Like Einstein, who portrayed himself as a slow learner who never let go once he had seized on some question, Dr. Hawking was legendarily, even irritatingly stubborn.


Signing a book of condolence inside the chapel at Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge on Wednesday. Credit Reuters.

Without that iron will, frustrating as it was to even to his best friends at times, Dr. Hawking probably would have vanished into his own black hole a long time ago.

He was only 22, a lackadaisical graduate student, when he was given a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which usually kills in two to five years. By the time he died, he had lived with it for half a century, and doctors had added the word “atypical” to his diagnosis. As if that explained anything at all.

I was an assistant typesetter at Sky and Telescope magazine, hungry for action, when I first glimpsed Dr. Hawking whirring in his electric wheelchair through a ballroom in Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel in 1976. It struck me as the most dramatic moment I had experienced in science. I felt like I had somehow known him forever. The genius, the brilliant mind trapped in a wrecked body, are archetypes of literature and folklore.

Of course, I didn’t know him at all.

He was there to talk about black holes, the scariest things that otherwise sober physicists had ever dreamed up. Black holes, objects so dense that not even light can escape them, are the most extreme manifestations of gravity. You didn’t need to understand the mathematics to grasp the notion of gaping maws sitting at the bottoms of galaxies or at the end of time, or the six-foot-deep hole with your own name on it.

Einstein, himself, had rejected the notion, but in the early 1970s astronomers were finding black-hole candidates all over the sky. The universe was rife with death.

In my own hopelessly romantic eyes, Dr. Hawking in the Copley Plaza will always be St. George in a wheelchair, sallying forth to slay the black-hole dragon.


Dr. Hawking in 2013. “I’ve always found a way to communicate,” he said. Credit Andrew Cowie/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

In intricate calculations that even his friends doubted he could he could perform, Dr. Hawking discovered that black holes were not black at all when quantum rules were taken into consideration, but were in fact fountains of energy, fizzing faintly with particles and radiation. Over vast eons they would eventually explode, giving back to the universe all the mass and energy that had once disappeared, in a sort of cosmic reincarnation.

In a statement that felt like it was about much more than just mathematics, Dennis Sciama, Dr. Hawking’s former Cambridge professor, called Dr. Hawking’s discovery, “the most beautiful paper” in the history of physics. St. George had slain the dragon.

He could talk back then and a colleague and I spent some time after his speech sticking a pencil in his tie to make it stand up, in defiance of gravity.

My article about all this got me promoted at the magazine. A year later, I was on a plane to England to do an in-depth profile. Later on, Dr. Hawking was one of the main characters in my book, “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos.”

He didn’t always appreciate the attention. He was mad when he came home one day in Cambridge and found me interviewing Jane, his wife at the time. And frustrated by my obstinate refusal to understand some point of quantum physics (that I still don’t understand), he ran over my toes in an elevator with his wheelchair.

As he continued to outlive the odds and progressed from a cane to a wheelchair and from grunting to a computerized voice synthesizer operated first by a thumb and then by an eyeball, it was hard not to think of him as his own best metaphor, a man with one foot in his own black hole.

But Dr. Hawking was not interested in being anyone’s metaphor. “I’ve always found a way to communicate,” he once told me. He was not about to surrender his narrative or anything else without a good fight.

There were, for example, what have been called the “black hole wars.” His breakthrough calculation had come with a huge price tag for physics. When black holes exploded, all the information about what had fallen into them would be erased.

“God not only plays dice with the universe,” Dr. Hawking said in 1976, paraphrasing Einstein and outraging many physicists for whom it is an article of principle that they can untangle the history of the universe, “but sometimes he throws them where they can’t be seen.”

And so the fight was on.

Two years later, Dr. Hawking, who made an art form of admitting his mistakes, said he had been wrong.

But it turned out that nothing had been settled. Also like Einstein, even when he made a mistake Dr. Hawking was being productive.

How and if information gets in or out of a black hole is now one of the thorniest, most profound and hotly debated questions in physics. Its resolution, most agree, will likely require a — dare I call it Einsteinian — revolution in how we view space and time. The universe, they say, might be a hologram.

It is hard not to perceive, peeking out from behind the math and inscrutable space-time diagrams on which this debate takes place, the need and desire of all humans for some kind of reassurance that death be not final, that something is left behind.

The black hole has now claimed Dr. Hawking from his life on the boundary of oblivion. And there is indeed something left behind: a mischievous grin and a great, great mystery.

Nature Video explores three of the publications that shaped his career and his legacy.

Do black holes have no hair?

Black holes ain’t as black as they are painted

How did everything get started?

Has the universe a beginning or was it here since forever? Well, evidence suggests that there was indeed a starting point to this universe we are part of right now. But how can this be? How can something come from nothing? And what about time? We don’t have all the answers yet so let’s talk about what we know.

How old is the universe, and how did it begin?

Throughout history, countless myths and scientific theories have tried to explain the universe’s origins. The most widely accepted explanation is the big bang theory. Learn about the explosion that started it all and how the universe grew from the size of an atom to encompass everything in existence today.

The history of our world in 18 minutes | David Christian

Backed by stunning illustrations, David Christian narrates a complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the Internet, in a riveting 18 minutes. This is “Big History”: an enlightening, wide-angle look at complexity, life and humanity, set against our slim share of the cosmic timeline.

Black Holes Explained – From Birth to Death

Leonard Susskind Takes On Hawking Radiation

Stephen Hawking’s premise was sound; his math irrefutable. As matter falls into a black hole, quantum events cause it to emit particles. These particles—what became known as Hawking Radiation—lead to the eventual evaporation of the black hole, and any information about the matter that fell in would be lost forever. But for physicists Leonard Susskind and Gerard ’t Hooft, something didn’t sit right. In fact, it seemed to go against the very laws of physics—a contradiction which ultimately led to the radical possibility of the knowable universe as encoded information. They discuss with moderator John Hockenberry the delicate challenges of arguing with a man whose theories were for all intents and purposes “unassailable.”

Watch the Full Program Here. Original Program Date: Friday June 3, 2011

A Thin Sheet of Reality: The Universe as a Hologram

What we touch. What we smell. What we feel. They’re all part of our reality. But what if life as we know it reflects only one side of the full story? Some of the world’s leading physicists think that this may be the case. They believe that our reality is a projection—sort of like a hologram—of laws and processes that exist on a thin surface surrounding us at the edge of the universe. Although the notion seems outlandish, it’s a long-standing theory that initially emerged years ago from scientists studying black holes; recently, a breakthrough in string theory propelled the idea into the mainstream of physics. What took place was an intriguing discussion on the cutting-edge results that may just change the way we view reality.

Black holes shine with Hawking radiation

When Hawking tried to understand small black holes, he realised he had to combine theories from different areas of physics. The result was a discovery that remains one of his most important contributions to physic.

A clip from a BBC documentary explaining Hawking radiation around black holes.

The Lighter Side of Stephen Hawking: The Physicist Cracks Jokes and a Smile with John Oliver

39 Best Motivational Quotes From Stephen Hawking

  1. “God is the name people give to the reason we are here.”

  2. “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”

  3. “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

  4. “I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”

  5. “I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”

  6. “I believe there are no questions that science can’t answer about a physical universe.”

  7. “I have found far greater enthusiasm for science in America than here in Britain. There is more enthusiasm for everything in America.”

  8. “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

  9. “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”

  10. “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

  11. “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

  12. “Many people find the universe confusing — it’s not.”

  13. “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”

  14. “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”

  15. “Science can lift people out of poverty and cure disease. That, in turn, will reduce civil unrest.”

  16. “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.”

  17. “Science is not only a disciple of reason but also one of romance and passion.”

  18. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

  19. “The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

  20. “The universe is not indifferent to our existence — it depends on it.”

  21. “There is no unique picture of reality.”

  22. “There is nothing bigger or older than the universe.”

  23. “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.”

  24. “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.”

  25. “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

  26. “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

  27. “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”

  28. “I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”

  29. “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”

  30. “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.”

  31. “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

  32. “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist… Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist

  33. “You cannot understand the glories of the universe without believing there is some Supreme Power behind it.”

  34. “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

  35. “It matters if you just don’t give up.”

  36. “Nothing is better than reading and gaining more and more knowledge.”

  37. “The universe does not behave according to our preconceived ideas. It continues to surprise us.”

  38. “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

  39. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”

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