One of the greatest minds of the world is now lending his brain towards research. It will help him and, hopefully, many others. Stephen Hawking has agreed to undergo trials involving the development of new technology that literally can read your thoughts.
The new device, developed by Philip Low from Stanford University who is the founder of the healthcare company NeuroVigil, aims to monitor brain activity and then map it onto actual actions or speech. For example, if one is thinking of moving his paralysed right hand and grasp a cup kept to his side, the device can read that thought and attempt the action of grabbing at the cup.
Stephen Hawking, incapable of any sort of speech, now communicates with his cheek muscles. Specific movements of his cheek muscles signify certain words and these are then communicated to a speech device. Now, it seems that Hawking is losing control of even his cheek muscles and this is where this new portable device comes in handy.
Called the iBrain, it has to be ‘calibrated’, i.e. told what to do when a certain part of the brain is activated. The information is collected from one particular point on the scalp.
In a series of initial trials that Hawking has been involved in, he has been asked to imagine moving his hands or legs. He has also been asked to think specific thoughts and these have been recorded. It turns out that more than the specific brain activity, changes in brain activity is more important. The team is now working towards ‘converting’ these thoughts into action.
The device will also help Hawking think of words that can be written down after being fed to the system. The current process of constructing sentences, using a word one at a time, is painfully slow. This will be a much faster process.
Survivor, genius, and now, guinea pig – Stephen Hawking has been all of them. And is still living and telling us tales.
BAZINGA!! The ultimate nerd show just got nerdier! The most famous physicist of our generation, Stephen Hawking, is to make an appearance on the Big Bang Theory, come Thursday, April 5th. The great mind of Sheldon Cooper will meet the great mind of Stephen Hawking, when the latter comes to visit the University.
However, a mystery remains. How did the production team get Stephen Hawking? That’s a mystery best left unsolved, say Bill Prady, Executive Producer of the show. It’s really a dream come true for many on the show, both on and off screen. Says Bill Prady on the behind-the-sets page of the Big Bang theory webpage (link):
When people would ask us who a ‘dream guest star’ for the show would be, we would always joke and say Stephen Hawking – knowing that it was a long shot of astronomical proportions.
He goes on to say:
In fact, we’re not exactly sure how we got him. It’s the kind of mystery that could only be understood by, say, a Stephen Hawking.
So, the genius is coming to the sets of one of my favorite shows. Just hope Howard doesn’t do his Hawking impression, with the real person on the sets.
The birthday boy had to miss out on his birthday since he was “unwell” and the situation doesn’t look too rosy. He was in the hospital and was discharged last Friday. Sunday was too early for him to get out of bed rest. He has defied death for more than 40 years now, given that at an age of 28 he was told that he wouldn’t live for more than 6 months.
Repeated illnesses like pneumonia have robbed him of his voice. Now he can barely more a muscle of his cheek. This creates pressure differences on a nearby sensor and this lets him choose particular letters, words or phrases on a computerized system to which he is wired. These are then put together and the composition is read out using a computerized voice. However, old age is threatening to seize even this meager resource he has. Deterioration of cheek muscle is making him harder to compose his spoken words. This is the reason why he always asks for questions to be submitted before an event, so that he may compose the answers beforehand. On a certain occasion during his TED Talk, he took 7 minutes to compose a sentence as an answer to a question from the audience, which wasn’t submitted to him beforehand.
Hawking’s 70th birthday will be marked by the opening of a new exhibition of his achievements at the London’s Science Museum on the 20th of January.
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.
When someone famous speaks, a lot of people listen; when Stephen Hawking speaks, everyone listens. The brilliant scientist is famous to the public for his record smashing book, A brief history of time’, and for the disease he’s afflicted with. In the science community, however, he’s famous for being the pioneer in black hole physics and for showing that the universe will have a singularity beginning, consistent with Einstein’s laws of general relativity. Lately, he’s been in the news for his outspoken atheistic views on the Universe and whether there needs to be a creator.
Discovery’s newest show and Hawking’s history
The latest in line of such comments is his interview on the new program on Discovery Channel called Curiosity’. It’s a major program, originally produced by the BBC, and it starts off with Hawking answering the question Is There A Creator?’ on August 7th. Using a speech synthesizer like always, Hawking, who’s been paralysed by the Motor Neuron Disease, goes bullish and gives straight answers, stating that there is no need for a Creator for the Universe to exist as it is. The show ‘Curiosity‘ intends to answer life’s greatest questions on fields as diverse as space and mp3 players – life’s most fascinating mysteries, as Discovery puts it.
Hawking faced a lot of criticism from the faithful when his book The Grand Design’, co-authored with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, was published late last year. The book essentially says that science is capable of explaining the structure of the Universe and there need not be a supernatural entity needed to explain anything. (I’d personally recommend the book as a well-written popular science book, readable by anyone and of any faith liberal enough to take in the facts of modern science.) Although not directly against beliefs and faiths, the book does touch upon many metaphysical issues and, when even faint disagreements with religious beliefs are deemed shrill, this was always going to ruffle feathers. Later on, early this year, Hawking said that Heaven was a fairy tale.
The motive to start off the Discovery series with Hawking is clear Hawking gets attention and the question always gets an audience. No, the program is not on atheism or religion, but on science. Hawking passionately says:
I believe the discovery of these laws [laws of physics] is mankind’s greatest achievement.
A short interview: An excerpt
Hawking previously did a short interview with USA Today and here are a few questions and Hawking’s answers:
Interviewer: First, we wonder if you could comment on why you are tackling the existence of God question?
Hawking: I think Science can explain the Universe without the need for God.
Interviewer: What problems you are working on now, and what do you see as the big questions in theoretical physics?
Hawking: I’m working on the question, why is there something rather than nothing, why are the laws of physics what they are.
The series is about science and, going by Discovery’s and BBC’s track record, it should be a wonderful series. Do not miss the show named after man’s greatest treasure – Curiosity.
Stephen Hawking has been proved wrong, but he knew this was coming. The irony is that a team from Harvard Smithsonian for Astrophysics from Cambridge proved him wrong; Stephen Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.
The famous wager
The story harks back four decades. In 1971, cosmologists from across the world said that Cygnus X-1, a strong X-rays source, was in fact a black hole. (You know what a black hole is, right?) The intensity of the X-ray emissions was off the charts, given its estimated distance of 6050 light years. Cygnus was soon realized to be a double star system a dark star and a blue star orbiting one another. Cygnus X-1, since then, has been an object of intensive studies for astrophysicists all around the globe. Everyone believed that it was a black hole and all evidence pointed to that. Stephen Hawking disagreed.
In 1974, Hawking and Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne made a friendly wager. Hawking claimed that the compact object emitting the X-rays was a neutron star, in spite of evidence that the intensity was too high to account for that. What was the bet? Hawking described it in his record shattering best seller, A Brief History of Time':
This was a form of insurance policy for me. I have done a lot of work on black holes, and it would all be wasted if it turned out that black holes do not exist. But in that case, I would have the consolation of winning my bet, which would win me four years of the magazine Private Eye. If black holes do exist, Kip will get one year of Penthouse. When we made the bet in 1975, we were 80% certain that Cygnus was a black hole. By now , I would say that we are about 95% certain, but the bet has yet to be settled.
Hawking conceded defeat in 1998.
Getting a bit more serious: The modern perspective
Astrophysicists from Harvard-Smithsonian Institute measured the distance and the mass of the stars using direct methods. The reason is simple. If we know the radiation intensity we receive from a star in a certain small band of the electromagnetic spectrum, then, by measuring its distance and mass, we can figure out how powerful a source the star is. However, X-rays are much harder to study than radio waves and, fortunately, Cygnus X-1 is also a strong radio wave emitter. This is a common feature in many compact objects. They are generally bright in both the X-ray and radio frequencies.
The Smithsonian team, led by Mark Reid, took to the Very Large Array (VLA) Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, which is scattered from Hawaii to New England, and focused it on Cygnus X-1. The resolution was a hundred times better than Hubble and was crucial in measuring the distance using the parallax method.
The distance was pegged at 6050 light years, give or take 400 light years. (If you’re not into astronomy, you’ll probably not be able to appreciate the fact that this is really a small margin of error.)
The mass of Cygnus X-1’s dark star is 14.8 solar masses and the orbiting blue star, slowly getting its mass torn apart by the compact dark star, weighs in at a heavier 19 solar masses. This is way above the mass required for a compact object to become a black hole it is much too heavy to remain a neutron star. It must be a black hole.
The team further measured the orbital speed (the spin) of the gas falling into the star. Measuring the temperature of the gas, using radiation emission data, the team found that it is so hot the innermost gas must be spinning really fast. They even put a number on it – 670 revolutions per second, or at 50 % the speed of light!!
The final words
The findings of the team are not reported in any paper as yet, but the Astrophysical Journal has acknowledged receiving three papers on this work. I’d imagine that both Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking are happy – Thorne for being proved right and Hawking for being proved wrong.
Sometimes a statement is significant because of what is said, rather than who said it. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Stephen Hawking’s statement that there is no heaven and that it’s just a fairy storydoesn’t belong to any of the above categories. It is significant for both the content and the speaker.
Documenting the history of time and design in the Universe
Physicist Stephen Hawking, director of research at the Physics department at Cambridge and noted for contributions in black hole physics, has always managed to create quite a stir – be it by writing a record-breaking best seller or by making certain statements. He came out with the book A Brief History of Time in 1988, which smashed all known best-seller records. In that book, he tilted slightly towards the accomodationist’s view of religion, regarding science and religion as being compatible with each other.
In his recent book, with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking dismisses the need for a Creator in order to explain the order in Nature. In that book, he explains physical topics such as sum-over-histories and M-theory, while also delving into the arguments about the necessity of a creator God. He explains why scientists, like Newton, believed in God and also discusses Einstein’s pantheistic belief. The apparent signs of design, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant, find a lot of space in the book. Compared to A Brief History…’, Hawking seems to have hardened his stance against religion, maybe compelled into non-belief by his five decade long struggle against personal handicap. (I would request the reader to read both books if you haven’t read them already- they are gems.)
Personal struggle and the key statements
At the age of 21, he was struck with Motor Neurone disease (or ALS), due to which he lost control of almost all voluntary muscle actions. When he was informed of the disease, his first reaction was to complete his PhD fast, before he died. Today, after surviving for nearly 50 years with the disease, his attitude remains pretty much the same, but with a crucial difference he’s no longer afraid to die:
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.
Speaking on the notion of life after death, and rejecting that idea outright, he said,
I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
In reply to a question How should we live our life?‘, Hawking said:
We should seek the greatest value of our action.
When someone asked, Why are we here’, obviously hinting on the religious undertones of the statement, Hawking replied,
Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.
This is a significant shift in the mindset of a scientist, who has been comfortable with the notion of God, at least in the metaphorical sense, like Einstein. Many modern scientists have let gone of even that connecting thread between science and religion. Hawking may be the newest addition to that growing list.