Stephen Hawking: a brilliant cosmologist who encouraged everyone to explore and understand

  • Hawking’s early days: did his diagnosis turn him into the awesome scientist we know and love?
  • Superhuman tenacity drove his research
  • His work was defined by brilliance beyond reckoning
  • But perhaps his greatest success was to humanise science and scientists

Today, the world was made poorer by the death of the renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Famous in both hard and popular science, he enjoyed seemingly incompatible honours. While holding the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position formerly given to such luminaries as Isaac Newton and Charles Babbage, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was on the London Sunday Times’ bestseller list for five full years, going on to sell more than 10 million copies in 35 languages. And though he had the intellect and skill to explain the origin and essence of the universe, he was also a guest star on The Simpsons and Star Trek. Combining mathematical genius with wit, humour, and roguish charm, Hawking was able to bridge the gap between mind-bending science and the popular imagination. He will be sorely missed.

Let’s take a closer look at the life and work of this remarkable man.

Hawking’s early days: did his diagnosis turn him into the awesome scientist we know and love?

Unbelievable as it may be, Hawking was an unremarkable student in his three years of undergraduate study at Oxford. But even then, his wit and propensity for pushing boundaries was clear. As Ian Sample recounts, “Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first and second class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first.” In 1962, thus freed to pursue his studies at Cambridge with Fred Hoyle, a distinguished cosmologist, he fell instead into the circle of Dennis Sciama. As Roger Penrose explains, himself a mathematical physicist who collaborated with Hawking in the 1960s and 70s, “…this proved fortuitous, for Sciama was becoming an outstandingly stimulating figure in British cosmology … Sciama seemed to know everything that was going on in physics at the time, especially in cosmology, and he conveyed an infectious excitement to all who encountered him.”

This was a turning point in Hawking’s life, and not just due to the influence of his new advisor. He had been struggling with bouts of clumsiness in the previous few years at Oxford, and in 1963, sought medical advice about a cause and cure. In what was a devastating turn shortly after his 21st birthday, his doctors provided a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating, incurable disease that would quickly steal his ability to control his body. Worse still, they gave him no more than two years to live.

Superhuman tenacity drove his research

Initially driven to depression, Hawking’s nearly superhuman tenacity allowed him to claw his way back to grudging acceptance of his disease. What’s more, it broke his half-hearted approach to his studies and gave him a new appetite for life – and for his work. As Hawking himself explained, “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research.” Here, he was being far too humble; the research with which he was progressing was nothing less grand than “… a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

His work was defined by brilliance beyond reckoning

His doctoral work already showed the signs of what was to come. His thesis applied Penrose’s work on the mathematics of black holes to the universe at large, culminating in his award-winning essay “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time”. Even reading that title makes it terribly clear that Hawking’s work in theoretical physics, mathematics, and cosmology is beyond the scope of most of us. Few pretend to grasp his work, and fewer still actually do. But what he was to accomplish over his career was nothing short of genius. Indeed, over the next few decades, he would – among other things! – explain the mechanics and topography of black holes, mathematically postulate that they emit radiation (now known fittingly as Hawking radiation), help explain the Big Bang, and describe the formation of galaxies from ripples in the quantum fabric of the universe. Perhaps most importantly, he popularised hard science and made an effort to translate the unspeakable complexities of the universe to the rest of us, writing A Brief History of Time with the help of Peter Guzzardi, his editor at Bantam Press, who took the wider public’s role in the process by asking him endless clarifying questions. It was published in 1988, and Hawking soon gained a celebrity status akin to Tesla and Einstein.

Two men and a woman holding Stephen Hawking who’s floating in a Zero G plane
His doctoral work already showed the signs of what was to come.

But perhaps his greatest success was to humanise science and scientists

This may be because, throughout his incredible career, he remained the man who had the cheek to force the hand of his committee at Oxford. While still able to control his wheelchair, he was known for reckless driving. It’s also alleged that he would purposefully run over the toes of annoying graduate students. He enjoyed late-night parties and dancing, albeit with accomodations made for the fact that he was on wheels rather than legs. He also infamously wagered a subscription to Penthouse that Cygnus-X1 was not a black hole, eventually losing to Kip Thorne. Similar bets, though with less outrageous prizes, gave his good-natured rivalries an air of humour and humanity starkly at odds with their serious, mathematical essences. And like the rest of us, his personal life was complicated and flawed.

And it was his humanity, his distance from our image of cold, uncaring maths and physics, that made him so effective a spokesman for science. From clever jokes about One Direction, to appearances on popular TV, to hilarious ripostes to John Oliver during an interview, Hawking proved that scientists and science needn’t be boring or out-of-touch to be smart. And with warnings about everything from nuclear annihilation to the rise of artificial intelligence, his role as a public intellectual has been to frighten us into rethinking what we’re doing.

Hawking, then, wasn’t just a scientist – and perhaps that’s the secret to his overwhelming charm. In his human frailties, we could see a bit of ourselves, and by softening the hard science behind the universe, he encouraged us to ask new questions and look for new answers, making even the most complicated, cerebral subjects something we could all wrestle with.

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