Stephen Hawking: Open, curious, sharp till the end
Like many others, I bought myself a copy of A Brief History of Time, right when it was first published (1988). They say it’s the book that everyone (well, about 10 million of us) has bought but few have actually read. Which always surprised me, because I couldn’t put it down. It was a tour de force, a smorgasbord, a fantastic flowering of ideas and reason and insight. No, I didn’t understand it all, but I hardly minded. Because the best thing about it was what it told me about the mind of the man who wrote it.
Stephen Hawking, of course. The man had a body that slowly shut down through the course of his life. But he had one remarkable, magnificent brain that stayed open, curious, active and sharp till the very end. He’s gone now, but it’s not just that his scientific legacy lives on. Clichés like that are easy when a great scientist dies. But it’s also that there are things to learn from how he thought about the universe he lived in, how he sought to explain things about our universe to the rest of us.
Take just one example. I like how he put in my mind a sort of parallel between time and light, making both concepts clearer. Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that massive objects will bend light. Well, in fact any object will do that, but we can detect the effect only with truly massive objects, like stars. In the book, Hawking explains this phenomenon and then writes of another that Einstein’s theory also predicts: that time slows down near massive objects.
Tough to wrap your mind around what that might mean, right? Light bending is one thing and that’s hard enough, but time too? But to help understand the implications, Hawking suggested that we think of twins. I’ll call them Leena and Meena. Separated at birth, Leena grows up on the Puri seashore, Meena on the slopes of Mt Everest. As the years go by, they go by just a little slower for Meena, living next door to Everest as she does. So even though they were born at the same time, Meena will actually be just that bit younger than Leena. Not really enough for you to tell Meena and Leena apart on that score alone, of course — this is a theoretical and minuscule difference we’re talking about. But it’s there.
That Hawking did very advanced science, I have no doubt. That I would not understand most of it, I have no doubt too. But to a dilettante at mathematics and science like me, Hawking’s genius translated into this kind of small delight: a connection that suddenly made sense and reality out of otherwise abstruse, abstract ideas.
In recent years, he spoke often and eloquently about exploring space more urgently than we humans are now doing. He believed that our “aggressive instincts” were increasingly likely to destroy our planet and us all. Our only hope is to colonize another planet. His advice was to do so within the next 100 years. “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet,” he once told CNN. “Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”
Again, Hawking found a way to bring a great big idea home to me, in terms I can follow — right down to the basket. Consider the exploration of Mars, I hear him saying, less as a wonder of science and technology than as a way to save humanity itself.
I can grasp that.
Then there was the time I “met” him. Twilight evening in Cambridge, and I was walking home. A door opened and a man backed out onto the pavement. He turned, and I saw he was wheeling Hawking. Right there in front of me! I was about to say “Hello!” and maybe go on to tell him how much his book stimulated me. But then I noticed he was asleep. So I whispered to the man: “Please tell Prof. Hawking you met a BITS Pilani graduate who is an admirer.” (Plug for the alma mater, thrown in.)
So as you disappear from our lives, Stephen Hawking, into some black hole of our collective imaginations, please know that I use that metaphor very deliberately. Because it’s you who showed us something new and profound about black holes: that some particles can escape them, must escape them. In fact, let me quote you on the subject, from your Roger Penrose lecture last October in Oxford:
“Black holes aren’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both on the outside, and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”
That’s how I’m going to remember you, Professor Hawking. You’ve left us, true — but you are absolutely not taking your ideas with you to vanish forever from this planet, this universe. For them and for the way your marvellous mind worked, there is a way out. There will always be a way out.
In scientific circles, acknowledging your contribution, they call those particles that can escape black holes “Hawking radiation”. I’ll say this much: may your own Hawking radiation spread over us all.
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