Stephen Hawking, one of the most profound thinkers and physicists in human history, has died at the age of 76. He was the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge and a celebrated author whose book A Brief History of Time was an international bestseller.
Hawking’s achievements and contributions to physics were all the more remarkable given the physical limitations of his body. He was diagnosed with a rare, slow-moving form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (known in the US as Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 21 and given just two years to live. As the disease progressed, Hawking steadily lost muscle coordination, including the ability to write. Unable to write equations in the standard fashion, he developed a method of seeing equations in his mind in terms of geometry.
Hawking is known for proving that black holes emit radiation (now known as Hawking radiation) and for so many other various predictions and arguments, I honestly don’t know how to summarize them succinctly. The Atlantic has an in-depth article discussing how Hawking proved particles aren’t actually real because they don’t persist in every frame of reference. Hawking wasn’t always right — he famously bet that the Higgs boson would never be found — but he admitted when he was wrong and proved willing to challenge conventional thinking and explanations, from his own initially controversial claims about Hawking radiation to theories about the formation and structure of the universe.
I was 10 when my father gave me a copy of A Brief History of Time and I cannot claim to have understood the book particularly well. But one thing that struck me, even at a young age, was one of the first stories in the book. A young man gives a lecture on the nature of the universe, only to be approached by an older woman who informs him that he’s wrong and the world actually rests on the back of a turtle. When he asks her what’s underneath the turtle, she replies smugly that it’s “turtles all the way down.”
The apocryphal story stuck with me because it highlights two different ways of understanding the universe — by received belief and by empirical observation and analysis. As a physicist, Hawking was in a unique position to extend and expand our knowledge of the universe around us, and he did so up until the end of his life. His warnings on the dangers of AI and the need for the human race to establish itself in new homes throughout the solar system, and eventually the galaxy, were a reminder that we must be careful in how we use technology and mindful of the long-term threats to our own existence.
In a world where far too much attention is often paid to short-term news cycles or quarterly reports, Hawking’s focus on fundamental questions of the universe, including how it came into being and what it would mean for it to end was a reminder that the short-term, while important, isn’t the end-all, be-all of our lives. There are greater questions to answer and deeper music to be heard. We — by which I mean humanity itself — are immeasurably richer thanks to Hawking’s contributions and will be poorer for his loss.
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