One of the smartest men, who probably held the answers to the mysteries of time and space, has been lost, at least in the physical realm of our existence. For millions of people around the world, he was the pinnacle of scientific temper and enterprising intrigue. Millions of people around the world mourned when Stephen W. Hawking breathed his last at the ripe old age of 76.
An unparalleled genius that conquered the world at personal and cosmological levels, Stephen W. Hawking influenced and inspired many generations. He is widely regarded as one of the most coruscating minds in Cosmology and Astrophysics, an heir-apparent to Einstein himself.
Given two years to live, in 1963, he was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating motor-neuron disorder called Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS(Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). The genius did not accept the writing on the wall and lived for another 55 years. Deprived of the abilities to write or move, he channelled his powers to the wheels of his thought and ingenuity. Among his many glories, the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge for three decades was a highlight. The post was once venerated by Sir Isaac Newton himself.
He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1982, an honour second to knighthood. At the age of 32, he was inducted as one of the youngest Fellows in the Royal Society. Even though he was a British citizen, he was ennobled with the American Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
A man of miracles, he defied the limitations of circumstance many times. One of the biggest examples of this was when he survived Pneumonia by having a Tracheotomy in 1985, which left him with a speech impairment. Undefeated, he started using a computerized speech synthesizer. And miraculously, the progression of his ALS froze to almost static.
From the complex world of sub-atomic Quantum Theory to the unfettered expansion of the Cosmos, the great mind played a crucial role on both the edges of human understanding and curiosity of Physics. He posited the ‘Hawking’s Paradox’ that suggests a mathematical inconsistency between the Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory. This is a challenge that still remains undefeated in the field of Physics.
It was his bestselling book titled “A Brief History of Time” that launched him into the orbit of stardom. The book has sold an estimated 10 million copies since its release in 1988. Unboxing the complexities of the universe for the non-academicians and non-physicists through the book, he catapulted his name in the continuum of domestic households. Using Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, he and fellow British scientist Roger Penrose, pointed toward a definitive beginning and end of space and time mosaic.
This led to the theory that black holes aren’t completely black, but emit radiation and eventually disappear. In other words, they dissipate energy, explode and eventually disappear into insignificance. The radiation named ‘Hawking Radiation’ linked black holes with the rest of the universe and provided an alternative to the erstwhile perception of black holes as the dead end for the laws of Physics.
Far from being perfect, he did have his faults and follies. The revelations of his first wife Jane Wilde painted him as a very egotistical, misogynistic and unflattering man. Perhaps he was not even the best physicist of his time and famously lost a few bets with his peers with claims like the ‘information paradox’, i.e. loss of physical information stored in a black hole at its demise or that the discovery of the ‘Higgs-Boson particle’ was not possible.
The fact that he never won a Nobel Prize does not help the claim of him being the absolute pinnacle in his field. However, he did win a plethora of other accolades like the Albert Einstein award, the Fundamental Physics prize etc. and had an incredible 12 honorary degrees.
Even his commentaries on God and religions received both flak and admiration. Unlike Einstein, who believed in an invisible guidance, Hawking declared that according to him, God was not needed in the creation or running of the Universe in his book “Grand Design”. In an interview with CNN, he opined that God might exist, but was not necessary to explain the creation of Universe as, “Science is increasingly answering the questions that used to be in the province of religion.” Turning to philosophy and metaphysics, he relegated religion to a realm circumscribed by Physics.
Apart from his fierce scientific curiosity, it was his rapier-like wit and impeccable sense of humour that made him a darling to so many of his peers and admirers. He showed an indefatigable spirit and travelled in hot-air balloons and zero-gravity Boeing 727s. From appearing on TV in shows like “Star Trek: Next Generation”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “The Simpsons” etc. and his life being translated to film screens through the much-acclaimed movie, “Theory of Everything”, he enthralled and captivated numerous hearts. Even though he had a streak of nasty arrogance in him, he amply showed politeness and compassion exclusive to only the very best of humanity.
Not succumbing to his natural physical incapacities and leveraging his seemingly supernatural abilities, he became an icon that transcended science. The iconography of a wheelchair-bound man with head rested on side spinning the most magnificent of ‘scientific fairy tales’ will surely withstand the test of time and space.
He regarded aggression as the biggest human failing or a relic from the ‘caveman’ days and archaic for the present age. He had his reservations about artificial intelligence and shared concerns about the environment and the human tendency to self-destruct. Rejecting the atmosphere of isolation and describing Donald Trump as “a demagogue appealing to the lowest common denominator” (in ITV’s Good Morning Britain) he always had trenchant observations on myriad issues.
He will forever be a lodestar for the triumph of hope over adversity, ability over fate and will over the body. As the man himself put it, “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
He is survived by three children and three grandchildren. His demise has left a yawning black hole of intellect and intelligence that might never be filled. But maybe, he is still living in what he would call ‘a better part of the multiverse’.