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Stephen Hawking died

Stephen Hawking died

The Brightest Star in Astrophysics

Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s braniest boffins and shiniest stars, has passed away. The swashbuckling cosmologist was 76. We’re bummed.

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Professor Stephen Hawking was born on the anniversary of Galileo’s death and died on Einstein’s birthday (also, π day – 3/14 or 3.14). He believed in alien invaders, world peace and holographic universe constructs, and enjoyed reading Playboy. With fellow physicist Roger Penrose, Professor Hawking merged Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum theory to suggest that space and time would begin with the Big Bang and end in black holes. Profesor Hawking also discovered that black holes were not completely black but emit radiation and would likely eventually evaporate and disappear. 

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It was black holes, in particular, that Professor Hawking was obsessed with. Though few pedestrians in the street could define the properties of a black hole, most have heard of them. Black holes, like many freaky objects in physics, were predicted by mind-bending maths before they were discovered in nature. They are, in the science jargon, singularities — points in space-time where the familiar laws of physics totally break down. They are surrounded by surfaces known as event horizons.

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Anything crossing the event horizon is swallowed forever, or so the theory went. Professor Hawking showed that this is probably not quite true. Things swallowed cannot, as such, return. But energy can escape from a black hole via a process that converts the virtual subatomic particles which constantly pop in and out of the vacuum of space into real ones.

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This ‘Hawking radiation’ has never been detected (for which reason Professor Hawking never won a Nobel prize, since they are not awarded for theory unsupported by confirmed observation). However, one of the great engines of physics, the Large Hadron Collider, is now engaged in work that might prove him right — for few doubt that Hawking radiation exists.

Nor was Hawking’s interest in singularities restricted to black holes. The universe itself can be viewed as a singularity, albeit one which human beings are seeing from the inside rather than the out. And he was intensely interested in its origin — coeval, as the name of his coffee-table-adorning tome suggests — with that of time itself. To explain this concept, that before the Big Bang there truly was neither time nor space, Professor Hawking described asking what was there before the bang as like asking what lies north of the North Pole.

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The Total Perspective Vortex

The other stuff of the Hawking oeuvre (large N cosmology, Yang-Mills instantons and the S matrix, anti de Sitter space, quantum entanglement, the Brans-Dicke and Hoyle-Narlikar theories of gravitation and Euclidean quantum gravity to name but a part of it) is, to most people, like the Schleswig-Holstein question — of which Lord Palmerston once remarked that only three people understood it, one of whom was dead and another mad.

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Physicists are rarely mad. It is true, though, that they are often oddballs or ‘differently normal.’ The departure of scientific reality from what common sense suggests is going on (the sun going round the Earth, for example) no longer threatens political institutions, but it threatens the human psyche just as much as it did in Galileo’s day.

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Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, described in that radio series an instrument of torture called the Total Perspective Vortex, which worked by showing the victim how irrelevant he was in the grand scheme of things. Professor Hawking’s physics is like a Total Perspective Vortex for humanity. His North Pole of time is 13.7 billion years in the past — three times as old as the Earth. His mathematics have shown that the universe, though finite in time, might be infinite in space. No philosophy that puts people anywhere near the center of things can cope with facts like these. All that remains is to huddle together in the face of the overwhelmingness of cosmic existence. We’ll miss you, Professor Hawking!

Cosmic quotes from Professor Hawking:

ON BLACK HOLES…

“EINSTEIN WAS WRONG WHEN HE SAID, ‘GOD DOES NOT PLAY DICE’. CONSIDERATION OF BLACK HOLES SUGGESTS, NOT ONLY THAT GOD DOES PLAY DICE, BUT THAT HE SOMETIMES CONFUSES US BY THROWING THEM WHERE THEY CAN’T BE SEEN.”

ON INTELLIGENCE…

“INTELLIGENCE IS THE ABILITY TO ADAPT TO CHANGE.”

ON NOT BRAGGING ABOUT HIS OWN INTELLIGENCE…

“I DON’T KNOW. PEOPLE WHO BOAST ABOUT THEIR IQ ARE LOSERS.”

ON THE REASON THE UNIVERSE EXISTS…

“IF WE FIND THE ANSWER TO THAT, IT WOULD BE THE ULTIMATE TRIUMPH OF HUMAN REASON – FOR THEN WE WOULD KNOW THE MIND OF GOD” – A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, PUBLISHED 1988.

ON GOD…

“IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO INVOKE GOD TO LIGHT THE BLUE TOUCH PAPER AND SET THE UNIVERSE GOING” – THE GRAND DESIGN, PUBLISHED 2010.

ON FAME…

“THE DOWNSIDE OF MY CELEBRITY IS THAT I CANNOT GO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WITHOUT BEING RECOGNISED. IT IS NOT ENOUGH FOR ME TO WEAR DARK SUNGLASSES AND A WIG. THE WHEELCHAIR GIVES ME AWAY” – INTERVIEW ON ISRAELI TV, DECEMBER 2006.

ON A PERFECTLY IMPERFECT WORLD…

“NEXT TIME SOMEONE COMPLAINS THAT YOU HAVE MADE A MISTAKE, TELL HIM THAT MAY BE A GOOD THING. WITHOUT IMPERFECTION, YOU OR I WOULD NOT EXIST” – IN INTO THE UNIVERSE WITH STEPHEN HAWKING, THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL, 2010.

ON SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY…

“I WOULDN’T COMPARE IT TO SEX, BUT IT LASTS LONGER.” – FROM A LECTURE AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, APRIL 2011

ON ALIENS…

“WE ONLY HAVE TO LOOK AT OURSELVES TO SEE HOW INTELLIGENT LIFE MIGHT DEVELOP INTO SOMETHING WE WOULDN’T WANT TO MEET.” – FROM INTO THE UNIVERSE WITH STEPHEN HAWKING, 2010

ON WHY HAVING A SENSE OF HUMOUR IS IMPORTANT…

“LIFE WOULD BE TRAGIC IF IT WEREN’T FUNNY” – INTERVIEW IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, DECEMBER 2004.

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