On the Net

Cosmologist, Space Traveler, Hero

by James Patrick Kelly


When you click over to the late Ste­phen Hawking’s site www.hawking.org.uk, the first thing you see is a photo of the scientist, floating weightlessly. The caption beside it says simply “Cosmologist, space traveler, and hero.” In 2007 Hawking hitched a ride on a specially modified 727 jet, sometimes known as the Vomit Comet www.space.com/37942-vomit-comet.html, that makes steep parabolic dives to simulate the experience of weightlessness. Over the course of eight such dives, Hawking, who had been in a wheelchair for almost forty years, experienced about four minutes of weightlessness www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2KrEH-8lJw. Before the flight he said, “I want to demonstrate to the public that anybody can participate in this type of weightless experience.” And after, “It was amazing . . . I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come.”

Alas, Stephen Hawking will never leave the planet of his birth. He died on March 14, 2018, at the age of seventy-six, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html. At the age of twenty-one he’d been diagnosed with this disease and had been given just two years to live. Of the many wonders of his life, his longevity was in some ways the most spectacular. His lifelong struggle to continue his ground-breaking work despite his failing body inspired many.

For this and many other reasons, Stephen Hawking was without doubt the best-known scientist in the world. Author of several bestsellers, he made guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, Futurama, The Big Bang Theory, and, hilariously, in Monty Python Live (Mostly). There have been at least four documentaries about his life thus far, and he himself was the host and narrator of several documentary series including Stephen Hawking, Master of the Universe www.imdb.com/title/tt1995098/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 and Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking www.discovery.com/tv-shows/into-the-universe-with-stephen-hawking/. Eddie Redmayne http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Redmayne won an Academy Award portraying him in the 2014 bioflick The Theory of Everything http://focusfeatures.com/the_theory_of_everything, adapted from the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen www.almabooks.com/product/travelling-to-infinity-2 by his former wife Jane Hawking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Hawking. In fact, the only modern scientist to achieve the same level of fame in his lifetime as Hawking was Albert Einstein www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein, whose theories of Special and General Relativity laid the groundwork for Hawking’s contributions to modern cosmology.

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the science

And it is for the work that was most important to him that we should first celebrate him, despite his many other achievements. Discussing them will lead us into deep waters; be warned your columnist is not qualified to do more than wade a step from the shore to peer into the depths.

With his friend and colleague Roger Penrose http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Penrose, Hawking developed the Penrose-Hawking Singularity Theorems www.wall.org/~aron/blog/did-the-universe-begin-ii-singularity-theorems, which proved not only that singularities exist but that the universe might have emerged from one. A singularity https://www.physicsoftheuniverse.com/topics_blackholes_singularities.html is a one-dimensional point where the curvature of spacetime results in infinite gravity so that no light can escape. We’ve come to call these gravitational singularities black holes.

With Brandon Carter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandon_Carter and James Bardeen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_M._Bardeen, Hawking pioneered work to reconcile the laws of thermodynamics with the existence of black-hole event horizons. Their four laws of black hole mechanics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_hole_thermodynamics relate mass to energy, area to entropy, and surface gravity to temperature.

In 1974 Hawking showed that black holes could emit sub-atomic particles due to the subtle consequences of quantum physics. The previous model held that nothing could escape a singularity. These particles came to be known as Hawking Radiation www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/3/14/17119320/stephen-hawking-hawking-radiation-explained. The implication of this theory is that over vast spans of time a black hole can “evaporate” and pass out of existence. For many physicists, this is Hawking’s greatest discovery.

For another look at some of Hawking’s essential discoveries, check out 10 Major Accomplishments of Stephen Hawking www.learnodo-newtonic.com/stephen-hawking-accomplishments, which also covers some of his work that was not directly related to cosmology. You can find a more advanced and rigorous explanation of his scientific work in Roger Penrose’s obituary of his friend Mind over matter www.theguardian.com/science/2018/mar/14/stephen-hawking-obituary. Penrose’s unflinching appreciation details some of Hawking’s disappointments in extending our scientific knowledge, but also reflects an intimate knowledge of the man. “Those who knew Hawking would clearly appreciate the dominating presence of a real human being, with an enormous zest for life, great humor, and tremendous determination, yet with normal human weaknesses, as well as his more obvious strengths.”

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the book

In 1988 Hawking published a thin volume on cosmology called A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Brief_History_of_Time, which unexpectedly became a best seller and helped make him an icon of popular culture. While it is by no means an easy book, it is accessible to the determined lay person who is curious to discover what we know about some of the very biggest questions: what was the origin of the universe and what will be its fate?

As a writer, I am fascinated by the publishing history of this little book. When Hawking proposed to write “the sort of book that would sell in airport bookstores,” agents and editors were at pains to dissuade him of this fantasy. Famously, it contained just one equation, E = mc2, but the manuscript nonetheless needed much revision to make it accessible to the likes of you and me. A bit of trivia: did you know that Hawking’s editor, Peter Guzzardi, changed the title? Originally it was From the Big Bang to Black Holes: A Short History of Time. Hawking later wrote that the revised title “was a stroke of genius and must have contributed to the success of the book.” Just before going to print Hawking considered striking the book’s last sentence. It went on to become the book’s money quote. Writing about the quest to develop a unified theory, he concludes, “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.” Hawking, an atheist, later acknowledged that without that line, his sales might have been halved.

And what sales they were! Ten million copies sold! Translations into thirty-five languages! Of course, the joke about the book was that people bought it to look smart but never got past page three. And while that may be true in some cases, the book does open a window into cutting edge scientific speculation to a wide audience. Hawking, edited or not, was a graceful writer with a sense of humor and a knack for making abstract mathematical theories comprehensible through analogy. For more about why this book so captured the public imagination, check out What made Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ so immensely popular? www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/14/what-made-hawkings-a-brief-history-of-time-so-immensely-popular/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.12df5a65b6ad.

My own experience of the book was perhaps typical. I did not understand everything I read, but I could see much further into the cosmos than I ever had. And while much remained blurry, I at least knew something was there!

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In the latter years of his life, Hawking enjoyed a glittering and ever-growing reputation thanks to his many accomplishments as a cosmologist and a best-selling author. Penrose writes “It seems clear that he took great delight in his commonly perceived role as ‘the No 1 celebrity scientist’; huge audiences would attend his public lectures, perhaps not always just for scientific edification.” People wanted to know whether Hawking had answers to questions that had nothing to do with black holes or event horizons. However, journalists who approached him for quotes about the issues of the day were sobered to report that the great man had a streak of pessimism about our future.

In 2006 he challenged the internet with a question, “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially, and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another hundred years?” Twenty-five thousand people replied, most offering heartfelt solutions to our cornucopia of problems. When Hawking finally gave his own response, it was “I don’t know the answer. That is why I asked the question.” There was widespread disappointment among his many fans, although some credited Hawking for his honesty. But in a 2016 interview with Big Think http://bigthink.com/dangerous-ideas/5-stephen-hawkings-warning-abandon-earth-or-face-extinction he proposed a challenging scenario for our survival, “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.” 

Hawking did not believe humanity was alone in the universe and was enthusiastic about the exploration of the Solar System and beyond, serving on the Board of Directors of Breakthrough Starshot Initiative www.breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/3, a reconnaissance flyby of Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. However, he warned of the dangers of announcing our existence to the universe and cautioned about making first contact in his Into The Universe series, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

He repeatedly warned of the dangers of unfettered AI research, believing that computers would overtake humans with AI within the next hundred years. In a reddit interview www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/10/stephen-hawkings-ama, he talked about a scenario ”. . . where an AI becomes better than humans at AI design, so that it can recursively improve itself without human help. If this happens, we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.”

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In this age of celebrity, we often admire people without knowing them. Roger Penrose reminds us that Stephen Hawking was a real human being “yet with normal human weaknesses.” That he held opinions that were sometimes at odds with our technophilic genre does not mean that he did not deeply love and appreciate SF.

And it is not too late to get to know this man, even though he is no longer among us. Not only his scientific beliefs, but his idiosyncratic philosophy of life, are well documented and will be parsed and recapitulated in biographies yet to come. But in the meantime, look to Ste­phen Hawking, in His Own Words www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/world/europe/stephen-hawking-quotes.html. I leave you with this quote: “Remember to 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. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

Copyright © 2018 James Patrick Kelly