Special Report: Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)

Cheryl Dyer Ballard takes a look at the incredible life of Stephen Hawking, cosmologist, scientist, and one of the most incredible minds of all time.   

Trapped in a failing body, he netherless succeeded where others would have given up, producing some incredible work over  the course of the last few decades, increasing our understanding of the universe, time, space and reality.  This week, Cheryl takes a good look at the man, his career and his legacy.

This week has seen one of the saddest moments in the world of science and education, with the passing of British Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist, Author and Director of Research at the Centre of Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking CHCBE FRS FRSA.

Hawking was born on 8th January 1942, in Oxford. Both of his parents attended Oxford University; his father studied medicine, while his mother studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. They met a little after the war whilst both working at a medical research centre. Hawking was the eldest of 4 children, with 2 biological sisters and an adopted brother.

Hawking started his education at Byron House School based in Highgate, London and a little later attended St Albans High School for Girls – it was deemed acceptable for younger boys to attend the High School at this time. Following his short time at St Albans, Hawking moved to an independent school based in Radlett, Hertfordshire for a year, and then from September 1952 the St Albans School where he passed his 11+ a year early.

On the day that 13-year-old Hawking was due to take an entrants exam for a scholarship to Westminster School, he became unwell. The family were unable to cover their own costs for schooling without the offer of a scholarship. Because of this, Hawking had to remain at St Albans.

Hawking did not show initial successes with his studies. It wasn’t until later in his education that he showed his flair for scientific subjects and made the decision to study mathematics at University level. His father did not support his decision, and urged Hawking to study medicine, insisting that he attended University College, Oxford. Hawking was unable to study maths there, and instead studied physics and chemistry after receiving a scholarship following his entrants examination in 1959.

For the first 18 months of university life, Hawking found the studies particularly easy; he also found himself bored and at times lonely. His situation changed throughout his second and third year, when he became more sociable.

Hawking did not study well at Oxford and believed that he was deemed “lazy and difficult”, especially he allegedly studied for about 1000 hours throughout his three years, which made taking his final examinations challenging. With these challenges in mind, Hawking decided he was going to concentrate his finals on his theories of physics and not his factual knowledge. Hawking already had his sights on Cambridge and had applied to study Cosmology. In order to get there, he needed a First in order to gain a place – the end result hinged on a viva, an oral examination.

Throughout his oral examination he was asked of his future and to describe it, Hawking’s reply was simple: “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” The examiners duly awarded Hawking’s with his first-class BA Hons Degree in Natural Science.

Hawking began his graduate work at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in 1962, again, finding the first year a difficult one. Disappointed with his training and tutors, it was also during this time that he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Hawking’s doctors were keen for him to continue with his studies, however, Hawking developed depression due to the prognosis of his condition with feelings that there was little point of him continuing. His disease took over slowly, with signs of difficulty walking unaided, his speech slowly becoming incomprehensible.

At the start of Hawking’s studies as a graduate, the physics community were debating about the theories surrounding the creation of the universe, namely the Big Bang and Steady State theories. Hawking’s found himself inspired by the work of Roger Penrose surrounding Black Holes, and applied these same theories surrounding the complete universe. It is with these theories that he wrote his doctoral thesis in 1966. Hawking received a Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, obtaining a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and his essay “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time”, sharing top honours alongside Penrose and winning the 1966 respected Adams Prize.

Hawking and Penrose continued to work together, with Hawking extending his theories that he expounded upon within his doctoral thesis, namely investigating the existence of singularities with a view of the universe starting as a singularity. Their work together gained second prize at the 1968 Gravity Research Foundation competition, and in 1969, Hawking received the unique offer of a Fellowship for Distinction in Science to continue at Caius. During the 1970s, the both Penrose and Hawking publicised their work surrounding the universe and the general theory of relativity.

It was during 1970 that Hawking made suggestions concerning the second law of “black hole dynamics”. At the end of these investigations and studies, he wrote an essay titled “Black Holes” detailing his findings surrounding the properties of mass, electrical charges and rotations within the creation of black holes. His work won him the Gravity Research Foundation Award in 1971. He then went on to write his first book with George Ellis in 1973 entitled ‘The Large Scale Structure of Space Time’.

Following a visit to Moscow and discussion with Russian scientists in 1973, Hawking started to put his research efforts into quantum gravity and quantum mechanics. The Russian scientists had discovered that rotating black holes emitted particles, which in turn contradicted Hawking’s second law. His efforts and investigations showed that the black holes were indeed emitting radiation, now known as ‘Hawking radiation’. At first, his work proved controversial – by the late 1970s after the publication of his in-depth research, his discoveries were noted as a “significant breakthrough in theoretical physics”. It was with this work that Hawking became the youngest scientist to ever to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).

In 1975, Hawking return to Cambridge as a reader in Gravitational Physics. Public interest in black holes and the physicists involved in the studies was growing, and Hawking found himself facing the media. During that decade, Hawking found himself in receipt of many awards…the Eddington Medal, the Pius XI Gold Medal, the Dannie Heineman Prize, the Maxwell Prize, the Hughes Medal and the Albert Einstein Medal. Not only that, he was appointed Professor with a chair in Gravitational Physics as well as an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Oxford. Hawking went on to be elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. At that time, his rise in status was paralleled with further decreasing health issues, which later led him to needing health care services within the home. All of this was happening just when he was in the process of changing his approach to physics, using intuition and speculations instead of mathematical evidence.

Alan Guth and Andrei Linde made proposals with a new theory name: Cosmological Inflation. Their theory proposed that after the Big Bang, the universe in turn expanded swiftly prior to settling down and expanding at a slower rate. It was following these theories that Hawking, together with Gary Gibbons organised a three week long workshop focusing on Guth’s and Linde’s theory. At the same time Hawking, was about to begin new research into the origin of the universe. This research was presented at a conference in 1981 at the Vatican. His research made suggestions that boundaries did not exist in the Universe along with beginnings and endings. Later in 1983, a model was published that was to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. While working together with Jim Hartle, Hawking demonstrated that their model demonstrated that prior to the Planck Epoch, the universe showed no boundaries, and prior to the “Big Bang” there was no existence of time.

In 1985, Hawking published a paper furthering his work on these theoretical boundaries, leading to the theory that if the universe stopped expanding then it would lead to its collapse with time running backwards. However, this concept was soon withdrawn following papers that included independent calculations by Raymond Laflamme and Don Page.

Hawking continued to receive awards. In1981, he received the American Franklin Medal, closely followed in 1982 with recognition in the New Years Honours- Hawking was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Although Hawking had so many titles, this did little to make him financially stable. Hawking was keen to ensure that he could finance his own children’s education as well as his home. In 1982, he began talks about publishing a book about our universe that the public would be able to access and be able to purchase in the high street rather than focussing on an academic audience. A contract was agreed with Bantam Books, and in 1984 the first draft of his hugely popular work “A Brief History of Time” was created.

One of Hawking’s conditions during production of the work was that he requested for his assistant to assist with the writing – the book caused an excess of frustration for Hawking due to his editor at Bantam not understanding the technical language, and Hawking had to simplify his words for his editor to understand. The final draft was eventually published in 1988 in both in the UK and US with astonishing results. The book became the top best seller in both countries for 3 months. Following its success, the book was translated into many languages for sales across the globe. It is estimated that 9 million copies were sold. With the success of the book, came success in the media. Hawking then started to reap the rewards that he sought financially. Hawking became a celebrity in his own right, travelling around the world promoting his work. He struggled to refuse invitations, and became less involved with his own students, causing some bad feeling with a few of his colleagues.

Hawkins honorary degree list grew further following the receipt of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Paul Dirac Medal. Both Penrose and Hawking were awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize, and in 1989 Hawking was appointed a Companion of Honour.

Hawking continued with his work in the field of physics, and in 1993 with Gary Gibbons co-edited the book Euclidean Quantum Gravity, a book containing articles on black holes and the Big Bang. Maintaining his now huge public profile, a film version of A Brief History of Time was produced by Steven Spielberg in 1992. Following the release of the film came interviews, talks and television series with the focus on science. Suddenly science was very popular again in the public eye.

Hawking continued to produce many works, including the publication of “The Universe in a Nutshell”, and in 2005 “A Briefer History of Time”, the updated version of his first book, principally aimed at a wider audience was released. His next book “God Created Integers” swiftly followed in 2006.

Travelling around the world had its own complications due to Hawking’s medical condition. Travelling by flying by private jet made this easier than standard commercial airlines, although it wasn’t until 2011 when Hawking had to rely solely on private jet travel for international flights.

Much dispute was to follow between physicists and Hawking’s theories and controversial solutions, to the point where other scientists grumbling about his celebrity status giving him instant credibility. In 2007 and following in her father’s footsteps, Hawking’s daughter Lucy, alongside her dad published an assortment of children’s books, originally with “George’s Secret Key to the Universe” followed by a number of sequels. The books are based on theoretical physics, described in children’s terms with characters based around the Hawking family.

Hawking was ranked 25th in the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons following a nationwide vote in 2002, continuing to receive more honours – the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in 2006 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 (the USA’s highest honour for civilians). In 2013, he received the Russian Special Fundamental Physics Prize. Hawking’s name has also been placed upon many buildings in and around University campuses as well as museums. At university, in total, 39 PhD students have studied under Hawking successfully, before he retired as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in 2009.

Hawking was also known for his naughty sense of humour. As a joke, he tested his 1992 speculation of time travel with an experiment in June 2009. Hawking threw a party, open to everyone, with the room filled with champagne and food. No invitations were sent out until after the event, with posters were displayed inviting literally everyone. He wanted to prove, that if time travel was possible people would show up at his lavish event: the outcome…nobody turned up.

Hawking never stopped working, even helping in 2015 with the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life. With the launch of Breakthrough Initiatives a programme of public scientific initiatives, he went on to create a 2017 episode of the partially resurrected BBC show Tomorrow’s World, entitled ‘Stephen Hawking: Expedition New Earth’, based on the colonisation of space, something he was keen to promote.

His final academic award was received last year in July 2017, an Honorary Doctorate from Imperial College London. Hawking passed away peacefully at home in Cambridge on 14th March 2018. His scientific theories and work will never be forgotten. Along with his incredible and often self-effacing humour, his theories and resistance to the obstacles imposed by his illness will be missed. A great man, legendary theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author, a huge hole has been left in science and the wider public consciousness.

On the day of his funeral, several of Hawking’s final wishes were executed. A banquet for fifty homeless people, served in Cambridge, a three course affair held at the Wesley Methodist Church by the charity Food Cycle Cambridge. In the end, the food fed far more than fifty people. On the 31st March, 2018, six porters from Gonville and Caius College carried Hawking’s coffin to the University Church, Great St Mary’s. Crowds literally lined the streets to pay their respects, applauding the procession. His ashes will be interred at Westminster Abbey, alongside his academic peers – Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford and Joseph John Thomson. He rightfully enters a select pantheon of scientific legends, and leaves and astounding legacy.


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Scientific News (March 2017)

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