(Credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)
Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But he lived to the age of 76, passing away on March 14, 2018.
It really was astonishing. Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given against witnessing this lifetime of achievement back then. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He became one of the most famous scientists in the world — acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books and for his astonishing triumph over adversity.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hawking was rather laid back as an undergraduate student at Oxford University. Yet his brilliance earned him a first class degree in physics, and he went on to pursue a research career at the University of Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease, he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. In other respects, fortune had favoured him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.
The 1960s were an exciting period in astronomy and cosmology. This was the decade when evidence began to emerge for black holes and the Big Bang. In Cambridge, Hawking focused on the new mathematical concepts being developed by the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, then at University College London, which were initiating a renaissance in the study of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Using these techniques, Hawking worked out that the universe must have emerged from a “singularity” — a point in which all laws of physics break down. He also realised that the area of a black hole’s event horizon — a point from which nothing can escape — could never decrease. In the subsequent decades, the observational support for these ideas has strengthened — most spectacularly with the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes.
Hawking was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32. He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But, for Hawking, this was still just the beginning.
He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory — the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours — he couldn’t even to …read more