Mad About Science: Stephen Hawking

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

On March 14, we lost one of our greatest minds. There’s no way I could sum this man’s incredible life up in fewer than 900 words, but I’d like to take Dr. Hawking’s lead in refusing to back down from an impossible challenge.

Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England in 1942. Hitler was bombing London. His parents were both academics, though his family was not wealthy and actually lived a frugal life. As a child, he and his friends loved building models, playing board games, making their own fireworks and building computers from old telephone switchboards. You know, kid stuff.

Stephen Hawking struggled in school. He found mandatory study work tedious which impacted his ability to gain scholarships, which was the only way he could attend school. He began his undergraduate work at the age of 17 and took up the position of the coxswain (like a captain) of a competitive rowing team.

At age 21 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS causes the degeneration of neurons that control muscle movement. Eventually, this leads to muscle atrophy, paralysis and suffocation when your body can’t move the muscles it needs to breathe. He was given two years to live. That was in 1965.

Understandably, this caused him to fall into a deep depression and his studies into cosmology suffered. Could you imagine being told that you’d be trapped inside of your own body? He was pulled out of depression when he met his first wife, Jane. They would go on to have three children together: Robert, Lucy and Timothy.

Between 1973 and 1975, after visiting Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich, a prolific Soviet physicist, and Alexei Starobinsky, a world-famous Soviet astrophysicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking introduced the world to the idea of Hawking radiation.

In a nutshell, particle and antiparticle pairs pop into existence near the boundary of a black hole’s event horizon. Normally, these would collide and annihilate, but sometimes they’ll miss one another, and the antiparticle will fall into the black hole while the particle escapes, causing the black hole to lose mass and eventually evaporate. This was a huge moment in Hawking’s scholarly life. Shortly after, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is kind of like getting a first round draft pick in the NBA, but for science.

Five years later, he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a position once held by Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac, respectively.

In 1985, he suffered from severe pneumonia and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy, which had the unfortunate side effect of fully robbing him of his ability to speak. Around this time, a program was developed for him that would give him the robotic voice we all know today. Even as time passed and technology improved, Dr. Hawking insisted on keeping the tinny robotic voice, which he felt had become part of his identity, and helped him communicate more clearly than even before the onset of ALS.

He published “A Brief History of Time” in 1988, a book that caused a great deal of strife for him, but one that would go on to change science in the public eye forever. The intention of the book was to bring science to the common person, an action that is continued by entertainers to this day. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and Michio Kaku are just a few names that would carry on this legacy to popularize science for the masses, but it came with a price. Dr. Hawking had to make things that took a lifetime of learning digestible for the regular person; imagine a sommelier trying to describe subtle tone and nuance of a French pinot noir to an auditorium of fourth graders without being able to tell them what it tastes, smells or looks like.

The success of “A Brief History of Time” was unprecedented, and it shot Dr. Hawking into the forefront of the worldwide media. The coolest thing about this, in my opinion, was that most of the money earned by the book went straight to children’s science programs.

Dr. Hawking was a genius the likes of which is seen once a century, but he was not a superhero. His married life was troubled, and his disease put tremendous strain on his wife, whom he eclipsed on the world stage despite the immense amount of work she put into her own career. He remarried once, divorced twice and struggled with the burden of international fame. In the age of filterless communication, it’s easy to condemn people for things like that, but I think these flaws humanize them. It makes the impossible seem possible if you’re willing to fight the odds and work for it.

We’ve lost a great mind, and one of the greatest pioneers in science, but one thing always gives me solace in the face of loss: The Law of Conservation of Mass Energy. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes shape. Everything that we are composed of isn’t destroyed when we die. It will change shape, it will be carried by the wind, it will grow the trees, it will feed the fish, the flowers and the birds, and one day it will all be broken apart by the sun and cast into the cosmos for a new adventure somewhere far away, but it will never be destroyed.

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