R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

I woke today to the sad news of the death, at the age of 76, of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. We all knew he had to pass away one day, but having been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a couple of years to live at the age of 22, I think we had all come to regard him as indestructible, so news of his death still came as a shock.

Stephen’s immense contributions to physics, including but not restricted to cosmology, are remarkable in their own right, but made even more remarkable that has done so much after having been stricken by such a debilitating disease when he was only in his twenties. Hawking was undoubtedly a brilliant and inspirational mind, but his courage and physical endurance in the face of difficulties that others might have found unbearable have provided inspiration for many far beyond the field of physics.

To give an example of his scientific work, here is an equation which I think would serve as a memorial to Stephen Hawking as it brings together quantum mechanics, gravity and thermodynamics in giving the entropy of a black hole in terms of its surface area and fundamental constants:

I’ve talked and written quite a lot about Stephen Hawking over the years. In particular I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the `cult’ that surrounds him. I think a number of my colleagues (and some some people at the University of Cambridge) have found things I have said insufficiently reverential or perhaps even disrespectful. This is not the time to go over these things. For the record I’ll just say (yet again) that, while I stand by everything I have said, I do – and always will have – enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and courage.

I may post a longer reflection on Stephen Hawking’s life and work in due course, but for now let me just offer my condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. He was one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of his day as well as a courageous and determined human being. He is irreplaceable.


28 Responses to “R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)”

  1. As a biomedical scientist I have a much better understanding of the motor neurone disease that Stephen Hawking endured for so long, than the physics and cosmology for which he was famed. But you don’t need to be a physicist or biologist to find him an inspiration, everyone should feel motivated by what he accomplished.

  2. Very well-said. He was stunning in what he contributed, but really singular in the resilience it took to do so. But indeed, cults of personality are (by definition) misplaced, and often bad.

    One example of his fame is his initials’ usage as an example of spurious features that can be found in the CMB (at a certain, tuned resolution). The equation in this post reminded me of that, when I made out hints of his name (LHS, initial; RHS, if you remove the numbers and put everything on one line, a resemblance to his surname). An ultimate epitaph, a permanent law about a star’s epitaph.

  3. Note that in the particularly interesting area of black-hole thermodynamics, Bekenstein also made important contributions (and he was the one who actually started that field). Hawking disagreed with him at first, but finally saw the light. Bekenstein died a couple of years ago when he was in Helsinki to give a talk.

  4. A Sad loss of a great mind!!

  5. brissioni Says:

    A gift to all of us.

  6. Shantanu Says:

    Does anyone know what he thought of dark matter of dark energy / cosmological constant problem ?

    • Despite having to do with cosmology, these topics were pretty far from Hawking’s main interests.
      I remember reading a paper by Turok and Hawking in which they both solve the cosmological-constant problem and predict a low-density universe, so sometimes these issues crossed his mind. (I don’t think that that paper has contributed much to science, though. It was motivated by “open inflation” models popular with some pundits at the time; faced with a low-density universe, theorists managed to make inflation produce a non-flat universe (robust predictions of inflation, anyone?) rather than anticipate the proper solution, namely that the universe is of low density (long known to Coles and Ellis) but that there is a substantial cosmological constant. It is papers like this which contribute to the “inflation can predict anything, so it’s not scientific” sentiment.)

      • telescoper Says:

        I remember giving a talk at DAMTP in ~1995 about my paper with George Ellis about the Case for an Open Universe. Hawking was in the audience, and he was firmly of the view that Omega_m=1 and was even prepared to contemplate a very low h. My argument then was that the only the most unreliable observational evidence pointed to a high-density universe. I was told by Martin Rees that our paper 1994 was pushing at an open door, but that definitely wasn’t I found at DAMTP.

      • Sadly, this is typical of many people back around that time, especially more theoretical types: first completely convinced that the Einstein-de Sitter universe is correct, then completely convinced that a low-density universe but with no significant cosmological constant is correct. Hawking would have hired you had you given your talk 4 years later. 🙂

      • telescoper Says:

        I do remember that talk very well. Hawking was right in the front of the audience, which was quite intimidating. There was plenty of time for questions at the end, and Hawking asked one (about how peculiar velocity measurements of Omega could not involve H_0, which I think I answered to his satisfaction). Then the questions continued. Then suddenly Hawking turned his wheelchair around and left, which was the cue for everyone else to leave too. It was quite an experience.

      • telescoper Says:

        ps. Four years later I was a Professor at Nottingham.

      • He could still have hired you. Other people from Sussex have been known to move to Cambridge. 🙂

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You got off lightly compared to how Landau treated speakers.

      • I don’t remember the participants, and it might be apocryphal, but allegedly a young speaker was destroyed by a perceptive question—to which he had no answer—from a senior scientist in the audience. Trying to save face and move on, the speaker said “We should discuss this later” to which the senior scientist said “We just did”. 😦

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Funniest thing I have seen was the Cavendish Physical Society talk in Cambridge in the late 1990s in which Anthony Lasenby first went public with the Cambridge Gauge Gravity Theory. When questions were taken at the end, Brian Pippard said he didn’t understand something, and Anthony went over the point again with virtually no variation from what he had said during the talk. Then he said to Pippard, “Do you understand now?” This was funny precisely because Anthony was patently being sincere throughout and not playing dirty rhetorical tricks. But it[s one I’ve put in my locker.

  7. Given that Stephen always made a lot out of being born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, I am sure he would have chuckled over dying on Einstein’s birthday. (Even if the 139th anniversary of that is not a round number.)

    Roy Kerr and I posted our tributes yesterday to https://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/2018/03/14/cosmologist-stephen-hawking-dies-age-76-experts-respond/

    Raymond Laflamme who was my contemporary in the Cambridge relativity group gave a video tribute here, which I recommend: https://globalnews.ca/video/4083257/stephen-hawking-had-a-great-sense-of-humour-former-student-recalls-hawking-teasing-him

  8. […] ein paar Bilder, eine Timeline seines Lebens, persönliche Reflexionen hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier und hier, weitere Reaktionen hier, hier, hier, hier und hier, seine […]

  9. […] R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) I woke today to the sad news of the death, at the age of 76, of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. […]

  10. […] R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) I woke today to the sad news of the death, at the age of 76, of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. […]

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