Throughout history, there have been rather spectacular individuals whose names lived on long after they had passed, and the world of science has certainly had its fair share. From Aristotle to Hippocrates through to more contemporary examples such as Da Vinci and Newton, they have all had one thing in common – a formidable desire to understand how the world truly works. Once in a while, another such individual will appear, and once in a while, they will die, leaving behind incredible legacies and contributions, inspiring countless further scientists in their wake. Recently, we said goodbye to such an individual – Professor Stephen Hawking.
Perhaps best known for his enormously successful book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking was one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists and cosmologists. His most significant contributions include work on the combination of general relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as the prediction that black holes emit a form of radiation now referred to as ‘Hawking radiation’. For 30 years, he held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (once held by Sir Isaac Newton). In 2009, Hawking was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for his contributions to scientific understanding.
His most significant contributions include work on the combination of general relativity and quantum mechanics
Hawking was diagnosed with a rare early-onset form of motor neurone disease at the age of 21, and given only two further years to live – the condition causes progressive muscle weakness, leading to slurred speech, muscle atrophy and, eventually, the loss of the ability to breathe without mechanical support. He had publicly spoken about the challenging period that followed, falling into a deep depression that made working on his PhD extremely challenging, as he was not even sure that he would live to finish it. Despite the odds, however, he persisted for more than 50 years, developing the ability to solve incredibly complex equations in his head and carrying on with his research regardless. In fact, he once quipped that his disability kept him from having to do the normal administrative and teaching work that would otherwise have been expected, giving him more time to focus on his work.
A severe bout of pneumonia in 1985 demanded an emergency tracheostomy, which irreversibly removed his voice. Hawking was still thankfully able to communicate using a speech synthesiser connected to a computer operated firstly by a hand switch and later by an infrared switch mounted to his glasses. This allowed him to select words to be read aloud, meaning he could still give lectures and dictate his many publications.
Despite the odds, however, he persisted for more than 50 years
He was also renowned for his remarkable sense of humour, and extremely stubborn personality. There are many accounts of past Cambridge students almost being hit by him as he drove his wheelchair at full speed, with one such incident causing him a broken leg as he tried to round a corner.
Beyond his research, Hawking was a vocal activist and humanitarian. From campaigning for nuclear disarmament to climate change awareness and the rising dangers presented by artificial intelligence, Hawking concerned himself with far more than just his work. More recently he was also involved in an ongoing investigation into the alleged ‘weakening’ of the NHS by privatisation and lowering of staff morale. This came to the fore in a public disagreement with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in which Hawking accused Hunt of cherry-picking evidence, which he considered a debasement of science.
Hawking was a vocal activist and humanitarian
He died peacefully in his home on 14 March 2018, with his family. Mourners posted messages from all over the world. In an obituary penned by his collaborator Roger Penrose, it was written that “those who knew Hawking would clearly appreciate the dominating presence of a real human being, with an enormous zest for life, great humour, and tremendous determination, yet with normal human weaknesses, as well as his more obvious strengths.”
Farewell Professor Hawking, one of the brightest stars we have been fortunate enough to observe.