The man closest to death enjoys life to the hilt! Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost authorities in the world on gravitational physics and a pioneer in the field of black holes, turns 70 tomorrow (8th January)! He is known for thinking deep about the greatest mysteries of the cosmos. And he thinks the most about that great mystery of all mysteries – “Women. They are a complete mystery”, he says.
You’ve probably heard all about his disabilities and his crippling motor neuron disease. I won’t tell you any of that! I’ll rather talk about his life – the one thing that makes him more lively than most of the completely-able.
Hawking and His Science
Hawking has been a pioneer in the study of black holes. No course on black holes, or even on gravitational physics, can conclude without his name being mentioned. He has contributed immensely to the worldwide discussion on the famous Black Hole information paradox and then did remarkable work in interpreting the meaning of Black Hole entropy. How can Black Holes, an inevitable conclusion of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, be compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, which says that disorder of the Universe should always increase? What happens to disorder present in a box of hot gas, when you throw it in a black hole? Isn’t the disorder of the Universe decreasing, since you cannot see inside a black hole?
The ingenious and inevitable conclusion of ‘Hawking radiation’, the mechanism due to which black holes can evaporate, bears his name. Even Black Holes die! Hawking’s spirit doesn’t!
Hawking and his Fame
Hawking is not shy of the limelight. His first book – A Brief History of Time – a smash hit best-seller, which set a record for being the No.1 book on the Amazon best-selling list for the longest time, was written when he was in dire financial straits. The book fed on the fascination of the layman for what lies beyond, but who is too ill-equipped to know. It discusses length scales in the Universe, Penrose diagrams and curvatures, all the while speaking to the audience which might not have a major in physics. And, wonder of wonders, it gets the message across. Since then, Hawking has penned many popular books – ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’, ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, ‘A Briefer History of time’ and ‘The Grand Design’, the last two being co-authored by physicist Leonard Mlodinow. These have propelled Hawking to a stature of the icon of science for the public and an inspiration for the masses.
Hawking is famously naughty. If he doesn’t like anything that was said to him, he often drives his wheelchair over their feet. More than the grimace due to the slight pain, Hawking likes the expression of utter astonishment on the face of the victim. His regret: he has never ridden over the foot of Margaret Thatcher! His bravado, often bordering on madness, especially given his physical condition, is a constant source of joy for him, especially when people scurry around worrying that he might be injured in some way.
And worrisome it was, when Hawking had contracted pneumonia from a visit to CERN in 1985. It was nearly fatal and he had to lose whatever little remained of his voice to tracheotomy. Hawking remained as unfazed as ever!
Hawking and his God
If anything, his voice has gotten louder! His metaphorical use of the word ‘God’ in “A Brief History of Time” had allowed certain religious apologists to claim that even Hawking believes in some sort of divine providence. Hawking has since not only shut them up, but invited their ire. He famously said that “Heaven is a fairy tale” and that the Universe can do without a designer. His ex-wife Jane said that during their divorce proceedings he said that he was an atheist. Hawking never publicly said that, but his stance on religion can be gauged from the statement he made in 2010:
There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.
For a man who has been afflicted with too much suffering and yet who describes himself as lucky, since his imposed slow life-style allows him to spend a lot of time pondering over the questions, heaven cannot possibly be an attractive proposition; he is too alive now! Alive enough to ponder of the greatest questions and posit answers to them. Especially the greatest question of all: Women.
A very happy birthday, Stephen Hawking.