When it comes to understanding the world, there is perhaps no better person to consult than the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Although he was born an eager and agile child, Hawking has spent most of his life studying science from his wheelchair with a disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Fortunately, this hasn’t deterred Hawking who has become one of the most popular scientists to ever live. His most notable contributions are those to physics where he is known for theorizing that black holes emit radiation upon absorbing matter in the death of a star. Hawking is also considered a leading public intellectual who as appeared on numerous televisions shows and regularly gives speeches through his personal computer on science. He has authored numerous popular science books such as A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell and he currently serves in multiple chairs for the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Last month I was fortunate enough to attend a Stephen Hawking lecture at Caltech titled “My Brief History”. The prompt for the lecture stated that it was going to be an overview of Hawking’s personal life and accomplishments in science. It was open to the general public and it claimed to be for a general audience. There was no tickets given out in advance to the general public and only high-level donors to Caltech were allowed to purchase ticket. Barring this, however, I am big a fan of science and mathematics, so I immediately decided I was going to the event.
As my memory serves me best, I recall Stephen Hawking wheeling his way onto the Beckman Auditorium stage at The California Institute of Technology. Hawking had managed to make his way through a long aisle of applause and cheers from the audience members who had been waiting in line all day just to see him in person. Alas our patience waiting in the afternoon California sun had finally paid off as Hawking slowly came to a halt in his wheelchair on the stage in front. When the applause ended, there was a momentary pause as the audience preceded to take their seat. Although he was mostly motionless, Hawking appeared to have a slight grin on his face as he peered out into the sea of people before him. A few assistants had made their way onto the stage to setup his monitor and keyboard on his apparatus so he could see his lecture in front of him. Once in place, Hawking proceeded to display his slides on the large monitor behind him which contained visual aids with text. This was helpful since if any of the audience had trouble hearing him we could at least visualize what he was trying to say.
In any event, Hawking began his lecture by talking about his youth and growing up in the United Kingdom during World War II. His first slides mentioned there were a lot of turmoil in his family because of the chaos of the war and the fear of a global economic and political meltdown. He said his parents had trouble getting along but both had made a good life for him. His father was a successful biologist and his mother was a poet. His father, he claimed, encouraged him to be involved in Biology from an early age. Hawking had parted ways with him, however, because he never enjoyed studying the concepts and ideas of the field. Likewise, he mentioned that his mother dated a poet named Robert Graves when he was a child. She was deeply in love, he claimed, and she often remarked that Hawking should be a poet when he grows up. Hawking stated he had no interest in poetry, but he claimed it encouraged him to pursue other areas of interest.
Hawking claimed his real passion emerged when he discovered the power and clarity of mathematics. To him, mathematics was one of the few pure sciences. By using rational intuition, Hawking claimed that mathematics always balanced well according to the rules of logic and remained consistent for him at all times. Even in the chaos of World War II, he found resolve and comfort in the field even though he had no considerable contributions to it in his early life.
Augmenting his memories from early childhood, Hawking next presented a history of theories on the universe. The slides on this topic recalled the Steady State theory that was popular before the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in the 1960’s. On this view, the universe has existed from infinity past to the present and will continue to exist into the future while remaining largely unchanged. Hawking stated that the Steady State theory was widely accepted by most physicists before the 60’s, but he claimed the theory had issues with accounting for how certain astronomical bodies came to be within relatively short periods of time as well as how and why they were moving away from us—all of which suggested there was change in the universe as a whole. Moreover, the cosmic microwave background radiation suggested that the universe came from an early and hotter dense state. The Steady State theory, therefore, was largely discredited for its inability to account for such observations.
The next few slides continued into Hawking’s and other notable physicists contributions to science. Chiefly, there were diagrams on black holes and their behavior during the death of a star. Hawking stated that certain physicists had tried to come to grips with the changes and observations of collapsing stars. One popular Russian physicist Lev Landau stated that a singularity—that is, a point of infinite density—can not occur unless the collapsing of a star is uniform. Roger Penrose (Hawking’s lifelong colleague) refuted this notion by, in mathematics, demonstrating that a singularity can and will occur if a star collapses in a non-uniform manner. This was an important finding for astrophysics because without a singularity in the death of a star, its descent into a black hole would still be largely controversial and speculative topic. Nevertheless, the proceeding slides laid out one of Hawking’s greatest achievements in physics: the Hawking-Penrose Theorem. The fundamental notion is that if Einstein’s General Relativity is true—namely, if space-time is curved by the presence of mass and energy and thus creates gravitational pull—then the entropy (disorder) of black holes can be calculated. The theorem, as revealed by Hawking, is 4 times C (the speed of light or Einstein’s General Relativity constant) over Max Planck’s constant (h) times Isaac Newton’s gravitational constant (G). I am unsure how it all of it balances, but Hawking did a brilliant job of clearly displaying the theorem as standard reference for studying the astronomical bodies.
As the lecture neared its end, Hawking discussed the most popular theory on the origin of the universe. According to Hawking, the Big Bang theory is most supported by all the evidence. He contends that the Big Bang is valid from observational evidence to the mathematics. There are some areas of controversy, he admits, but for the most part the theory is overwhelming recognized as a valid explanation of the origin of the universe. To be clear, however, Hawking stated that the beginning need not imply a complete and universal singularity. Using Euclidean Geometry, Hawking contends that time could be thought of as a direction in space and not a linear construct (that is moving from past present and into the future). This removes any notion of a beginning since time would have had no point at which it actually came into existence but rather has existed in a vacuum. In this state, there are no states prior and asking if anything came before would be similar to asking what is south of the South Pole: nothing.
The lecture drew to a close as Hawking thanked the audience members for listening to him for the hour. The audience stood to applause as he was assisted off the stage by his helpers. It was a surreal experience to say the least as he remained motionless in his wheelchair, yet captivated everyone’s attention as he continued through the aisles. I remember wondering to myself how one man, in his nearly motionless state, could change the world in such extraordinary ways. Not knowing the answer is the most perplexing notion indeed.