Wednesday, March 14, 2018

STEPHEN HAWKING: Courage personified

Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest Astrophysicists of all times. He died early morning today on 14th March 2018 at the age of 76. This article was written as many years ago is being published as a tribute.

Photograph courtesy Wikipedia

'Stephen Hawking A life in Science' by Michale White and John Gribbin and  'Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything' by Kity Ferguson are two biographies about him. They are worth reading.

The placard Quiet Please, The Boss Is Asleep―outside the office of Stephen Hawking―is a bit out of place. He is the Commander of British Empire, the most brilliant theoretical Physicist since Einstein with 13 International Awards and 11 honorary Doctorates, a man, known as much for his theoretical Physics and courage, as his wit. Unable to walk, write or speak, he has leaped beyond universe. 


Hawking was born on Jan 4, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. By the time he was eight, he was seriously thinking of becoming a scientist. And at fourteen, despite his father's love for medicine, he wanted to do Mathematics, more Mathematics and Physics. 

Stephen's family lacked material possessions but something they had plenty―the books. The family was odd. Their friends when invited to tea would find them buried in books over dinner table. They spoke strangely. Hawking―Hawkingesc. The children spoke so fast so if they were skipping the words and father stuttered. 

Stephen was ordinary as a child. So ordinary was he, that one of his friends bet the other, a packet of chocolate, in case he ever came to do anything. Hawkings went to Oxford at seventeen. There he is remembered as a student, who liked finding mistakes in the textbooks rather than solving the problems. 

Hawking wanted to be a theoretical physicist and chose cosmology. He applied for a PhD at Cambridge, since Fred Hoyle, the most famous British astronomer was there. The Cambridge University put a condition. He should get a first from Oxford.

Hawking did not do well in his exams. He was on the borderline between the first and the second. The examiners called him for a personal interview and questioned him about his plans. He reputed to have said, 
‘If I get a first I shall go to Cambridge. If I receive a second I will remain at Oxford. So I will expect that you will give me a first.’  
Needless to say, Hawking got first and he went to Cambridge. Though his physics tutor later explained to the New York Times that the oral examiners 'were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to some one far more cleverer than most of themselves. 

At 21 Hawking contracted a rare disease, with no cure; motor neurone disease. It causes gradual disintegration of cells in the spinal cord and brain that regulate voluntary muscle activity: speech and movement are its first casualties; and death, in two to three years. Today he is still alive and is making news. Is he lucky or is it his determination?  You can take your pick. 

Hawking says, he realised the value of life, when he came to know at 21 that he would soon die. It was about the same time that he fell in love. It was not possible to marry, unless he had a job and no job was possible until he had a PhD. 

Hawking had read about a theory of Roger Penrose (see End Note-1) concerning what happens to a Star when it dies. It collapses into a black hole. Penrose had improved the work of Subrahmanayam Chandrashekhar (see End Note-2). Hawking took a reverse direction. Suppose, space, time and the entire mass was concentrated at a point. Imagine a point singularity and it exploded; what we call the big bang and expanded into what it looks like today. He worked hard on the idea and according to him, he was surprised to find that he liked it.

Hawking was made fellow of the Royal Society at 32. A new member has to walk up to the podium to sign the register. But this time, they broke the tradition. Sir Alan Hodgkin, Nobel Prize winner in biology, president of the society walked down to Hawking. For Hawking could not walk. He had long started using a wheelchair. He could still write, but with great difficulty. He took a long time to write his own name. 

Hawking had lost his speech but could make sounds, which few could understand. He used to communicate with that. Soon this was to leave him.

Hawking contracted pneumonia. His life could be saved by his windpipe. He no longer breathes through his nose or mouth but through a small permanent opening made in his throat. He became incapable of speech. He now cannot communicate except through the special computer program operated by fine movements of his fingers and the speech synthesiser fitted onto his wheelchair. 

In 1982, Hawking wanted money to send his daughter to a school. He wrote a popular book, ‘A brief History of time ... from big bang to black holes’. The book dealt with philosophical questions like: Where did the universe come from; How and why did it begin; Will it come to an end; Is there a complete theory of the universe and everything in it;  Is there a need for God and non philosophical question: What made him study cosmology and quantum theory?  

The book is an all time best seller. It has sold more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988 and has been translated in more than 35 languages.  

It is said solving equations for Hawking is as strenuous as it would be for  Mozart to mentally composing a symphony. One can only imagine his courage and determination.  Everything about him leaves one surprised even the life size portrait of Marilyn Monroe that hangs on the door of his office.

End Note-1: Roger Penrose is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He shared the 1988 Wolf Prize for Physics with Hawking. His book `The Emperor's new mind concerning computers, minds and the laws of Physics' published by Vintage two years ago was a best seller. The book tries to show that everything is not digital. The conscious mind does not function like one. And in this process he takes a journey through modern Physics, Cosmology, Mathematics and Philosophy. The book is interesting to read and is a must for a university student. 

End Note-2:  Subrahmanyam Chandrashekhar is an Indian living in Chicago. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on black holes. `CHANDRA' an interesting biography about him is available. Viking published it.

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