What made Hawking such a fascinating and loved figure? A set of factors, each one extraordinary in its own right, combined in this man in an unprecedented way. He was an exceptionally brilliant and original scientist; he was afflicted by a debilitating disease that gradually destroyed his body; and he had a uniquely upbeat personality in his interaction with high-level scientists as well as with students, the media, and the general public.
As a scientist, Hawking dived into the two most fascinating fields of astrophysics — the origin of the universe, and black holes; sometimes he even combined the two, as when he inferred the existence of primordial black holes from the early times of the universe, tiny objects that would evaporate and ultimately release huge amounts of energy. He is perhaps most famous for applying quantum physics to black holes and concluding that some “radiation” would slowly escape black holes, making them “evaporate” over very long periods of time. Black holes are thus not totally black after all, and some stuff escapes from them from time to time.
Likewise, in cosmology, Hawking first proved (with another great mathematical physicist, Sir Roger Penrose) that Einstein’s theory of general relativity necessarily leads to a singularity, a point of infinite density, something that most scientists consider a monstrosity. But he was disturbed by that, and so he worked hard to try to find an alternative. And soon enough, he and another colleagues (James Hartle) introduced “imaginary time” (another innovation of Hawking’s) that would smooth out the starting point of the universe. In their new approach, going back in time toward the beginning of the universe was like going farther and farther north; thus when you reach the North Pole, you cannot go further north (likewise, you cannot go further back in time), but there is nothing special about that “flat” point — no more singularity!
Such was the brilliance of Hawking; he would come up with striking and unprecedented solutions to problems that had perplexed and fascinated scores of scientists for decades.
The extraordinary life and achievements of the British physicist send a powerful message to all of us — no matter what physical challenges we may face, the human spirit is potentially indomitable.
But there is no doubt that his medical and physiological condition contributed enormously to his fame. The public was fascinated by this man, who could move almost no part of his body, but didn’t seem to mind, and in fact just went on with his research, gave many lectures, and often participated in cultural and media activities right and left. How many people, given a diagnosis of motor neurone disease at the age of 22 and told that they have only two years to live, would behave as Hawking did? (I knew one scientist who was given a similar diagnosis around the age of 40, and who simply committed suicide.)
Hawking saw that medical blow as a challenge. As I tell people I know who face serious challenges in life, you can either let yourself collapse in depression and tears or you can rise up and prove your worth to the world. Hawking chose the latter and decided that he would live a life of high spirits, challenging colleagues with bets on high-science items, appearing on comedy shows, going on zero-gravity flights, and so forth.
I should also note that Hawking held progressive views socially, culturally, and politically. For instance, he supported the Palestinian cause and some Israel boycott efforts, and he declined the knighthood that was offered to him some years ago in protest at the deficient funding of the sciences.
In short, Hawking ignored his body and raised his mind and his spirit to the highest levels he could. Indeed, the contrast between his shrunken and paralyzed body and his potent mind, powerful ideas, and soaring spirit is the starkest we may ever have seen in humanity.
What an iconic image and powerful message he leaves for us all, particularly those to whom life has dealt a mixed set of cards. We should all remember that no matter what challenges we may face, there is, hidden within us, a potentially powerful mind and great spirit. May that message resonate long after Stephen Hawking’s life.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum