Stephen Hawking was burried at age 76 in Westminster Abbey two days ago. Most nearly everyone is aware of Stephen Hawking. Most people know his significance is that to Einstein and that he has Motor Neuron Disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Beyond this? Not much, which is a true shame. You don’t have to understand his work to understand his significance.
Hawking showed the world the extent of our capability to manipulate human intuition and perseverance to perpetuate human progress. He also showed that science isn’t accomplished by these dead deities of knowledge such as Einstein or Newton; it’s accomplished by normal people with a love of learning that’s perceived as an extraordinary. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Sherlock Holmes, Holmes illuminates his peers with his deductive abilities, but once he walks them through his methodology, it’s “elementary“. The same applies to science. One could walk into an MIT undergrad Calculus I class and be overwhelmed by the mounds of notation on the chalkboard. You might be inclined to say “I’m no genius, I could never understand that”. If you say that you’d be half right: you’re no genius, but you COULD understand what’s on the board. See, what separates Hawking, and those like him, from the rest of humanity, is not their intellect (though they theirs is unquestionable), it’s their passion for learning. Carl Jung said, “A ‘why’ can answer any question of ‘how'”. His love of learning was his ‘why’. Colossally complicated calculus was his ‘how’. Intellect is surely a factor at what makes someone great, but somebody with an IQ of 190 without passion is insurmountably insufficient to somebody with an IQ of 110 with passion.
Carl Sagan describes such an inspiring anecdote in his book, Cosmos, writing of a man named Milton Humason from the early 20th century who was “tobacco-chewing roustabout, a superb gambler and pool player and what was then called a ladies’ man”. Humason had no formal education surpassing the eighth grade. After working as a construction worker on the worlds largest telescope (yet) on Mount Wilson in Los Angeles, he started taking odd jobs such as a janitor or electricians assistant. He eventually became a permanent telescope operator being “bright and curious and naturally inquisitive about the equipment he had laboriously carted”.
Then along comes Edwin Hubble, the Edwin Hubble who discovered that spiral nebulae were fellow galaxies like our Milky Way. Humason and Hubble immediately took interest in each other, befriending the other, and working in harmony in the Mount Wilson Observatory.
“It soon became clear that Humason was better able to obtain high-quality spectra of distant galaxies than any professional astronomer in the world”
Humason and Hubble discovered the Doppler isotropic red-shifting of distant galaxies; they discovered the expansion of the universe. A tobacco-chewing ladies man who hadn’t even entered high school had helped discover the expansion of the universe. It was his perseverance and love of learning combined with his intellect that yielded him this accomplishment, not intelligence alone. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
This is what Hawking shows us.
In Hawking’s book Black Holes and Baby Universes, the sequel to the Amazon bestseller at the moment, A Brief History of Time, Hawking shares an anecdote of the beginning of his diagnosis. He was in his hospital bed and witnessed a young boy who shared his room die of leukemia. Despite having every right to complain about gradually losing control of his entire body to his disease, he didn’t. He said anytime he felt sorry for himself he thought back to the boy in the room; it could be much worse.
See, what Hawking was known for was his work on black holes. It was previously thought that once the gravity of a black hole surpassed a critical value light was unable to escape the black hole, thus because of Einstein’s theory of relativity stating nothing could exceed the speed of light, nothing could escape a black hole once it passed what is called “the event horizon”. Thus it was thought that space and time ended at the singularity at the center of the black hole. Hawking is so famous because he discovered Hawking Radiation, proving Einstein wrong. Einstein was wrong in that he believed that “God does not play dice”, rejecting quantum mechanics. Hawking showed that particularly primordial black holes the size of a nucleus of an atom forged in the turmoil and chaos in the synthesis of our universe would emit radiation and evaporate, vanishing from our universe. Using Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum tunneling, Hawking showed that a particle anti-particle pair could surpass the speed of light at the event horizon and emit one party of the pair, rendering the black hole a radiating blackbody. This leads to a bunch of interesting conclusions of wormholes and baby universes etc… Now it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand this process because I sure as hell won’t act like I do. This crude explanation of his work does it no justice; if you’re curious, investigate it yourself. And that is precisely my point, a little bit of curiosity combined with a minuscule hint of naivety that you could discover something new in the universe can immortalize you; you may die but your Being lives on.
Knowledge and its intense never-ending pursuit are how you escape the inevitable arrival of death. Fifty-five years after a diagnosis that gave him a minuscule two years to live, Stephen Hawking’s biological remnants lie under a gravestone justly adjacent to Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin , but what makes a true scientist alive is not their body; it’s their ideas. And just as half of a particle anti-particle pair ends in the cataclysmic collapse of space-time at the black hole’s singularity while its other escapes to infinity, while Hawking’s body lay victim to death under the rich soil of the earth, his mind and soul immortally live on through his ideas, radiating in equilibrium and tranquility into the rest of the known universe, escaping the singularity of death.