Stephen Hawking: Extraordinary life of the man who explained the universe

Stephen Hawking. (AP)
Updated 16 March 2018
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Stephen Hawking: Extraordinary life of the man who explained the universe

PARIS: In his final years, the only thing connecting the brilliant physicist to the outside world was a couple of inches of frayed nerve in his cheek.
As slowly as a word per minute, Stephen Hawking used the twitching of the muscle under his right eye to grind out his thoughts on a custom-built computer, painstakingly outlining his vision of time, the universe, and humanity’s place within it.
What he produced was a masterwork of popular science, one that guided a generation of enthusiasts through the esoteric world of anti-particles, quarks, and quantum theory. His success, in turn, transformed him into a massively popular scientist, one as familiar to the wider world through his appearances on prime time television shows as his work on cosmology and black holes.
Hawking owed one part of his fame to his triumph over amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative disease that eats away at the nervous system. When he was diagnosed, aged only 21, he was given only a few years to live.
But Hawking defied the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years, pursuing a brilliant career that stunned doctors and thrilled his fans. Even though a severe attack of pneumonia left him breathing through a tube, an electronic voice synthesizer allowed him to continue speaking, albeit in a robotic monotone that became one of his trademarks.
He carried on working into his 70s, spinning theories, teaching students, and writing “A Brief History of Time,” an accessible exploration of the mechanics of the universe that sold millions of copies.
By the time he died on Wednesday at 76, Hawking was among the most recognizable faces in science, on a par with Albert Einstein.
As one of Isaac Newton’s successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a “unified theory.”
Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects such as planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.
For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest. “A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: Our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence,” he wrote in “A Brief History of Time.”
In later years, though, he suggested a unified theory might not exist.
He followed up “A Brief History of Time” in 2001 with the sequel, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” which updated readers on concepts like supergravity, naked singularities and the possibility of an 11-dimensional universe.
Hawking often credited humor with helping him deal with his disability, and it was his sense of mischief that made him game for a series of stunts.
He made cameo television appearances in “The Simpsons,” “'Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and the “The Big Bang Theory” and counted among his fans U2 guitarist The Edge, who attended a January 2002 celebration of Hawking’s 60th birthday.
His early life was chronicled in the 2014 film “The Theory of Everything,” with Eddie Redmayne winning the best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking. Some colleagues credited that celebrity with generating new enthusiasm for science.
His near-total paralysis certainly did little to dampen his ambition to physically experience space: Hawking savored small bursts of weightlessness in 2007 when he was flown aboard a jet that made repeated dives to simulate zero-gravity.
Hawking had hoped to leave Earth’s atmosphere altogether someday, a trip he often recommended to the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.
“In the long run the human race should not have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet,” Hawking said in 2008. “I just hope we can avoid dropping the basket until then.”
Hawking first earned prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as “Hawking radiation.”
“It came as a complete surprise,” said Gary Horowitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It really was quite revolutionary.”
Horowitz said the find helped move scientists one step closer to cracking the unified theory.
Hawking’s other major scientific contribution was to cosmology, the study of the universe’s origin and evolution. In 2004, he announced that he had revised his previous view that objects sucked into black holes simply disappeared, perhaps to enter an alternate universe. Instead, he said he believed objects could be spit out of black holes in a mangled form.
That new theory capped his three-decade struggle to explain a paradox in scientific thinking: How can objects really “disappear” inside a black hole and leave no trace when subatomic theory says matter can be transformed but never fully destroyed?
Hawking was born Jan. 8, 1942, in Oxford, and grew up in London and St. Albans, northwest of the capital. In 1959, he entered Oxford University and then went on to graduate work at Cambridge.
Hawking married Jane Wilde in 1965 and they had three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy. Jane cared for Hawking for 20 years, until a grant from the US paid for the 24-hour care he required.
He was inducted into the Royal Society in 1974 and received the Albert Einstein Award in 1978. In 1989, Queen Elizabeth II made him a Companion of Honor, one of the highest distinctions she can bestow.
He whizzed about Cambridge at surprising speed — usually with nurses or teaching assistants in his wake — traveled and lectured widely, and appeared to enjoy his fame. He retired from his chair as Lucasian Professor in 2009 and took up a research position with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.


Nigerian military struggles against Daesh in West Africa

Updated 57 min 17 sec ago
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Nigerian military struggles against Daesh in West Africa

  • The fatigued, ill-equipped government troops have reached breaking point
  • Daesh killed 48 soldiers at a military base and, in a separate attack, left 32 dead in Gudumbali

ABUJA: Extremists militants have killed hundreds of soldiers in attacks in northeastern Nigeria in recent weeks, security and military sources say, forcing a turnaround in the course of an insurgency which the government has frequently claimed to have vanquished.
The fatigued, ill-equipped government troops have reached breaking point, they said.
The setback in the war against Daesh in West Africa (ISWA) and the Boko Haram insurgency from which it split in 2016 comes as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term in elections next February.
Buhari came to power in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram, and security has once again emerged as a main campaign issue.
In the past three weeks, according to military and security sources, ISWA killed 48 soldiers at a military base and, in a separate attack, left 32 dead in Gudumbali — a town to which thousands of refugees were ordered to return in June.
“The situation in the northeast is deteriorating,” said one security source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are running out of weapons, ammo and basic equipment. They are exhausted.”
Now, ISWA is winning almost all its battles with the military, security sources said.
That marks a contrast with the situation in early 2015 when the Nigerian army, backed by troops from neighboring countries, pushed Boko Haram off a swathe of land that the insurgents controlled.
Before the insurgency, Nigeria’s northeast, sitting in the arid Sahel that skirts the Sahara’s southern border, had for centuries been a hub of cross-continental trade through the desert and one of the country’s agricultural breadbaskets.
ISWA’s influence extends from the Lake Chad region, including in Niger and Chad itself, and stretches about 100 miles into the Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe, where government has in many areas all but vanished after a decade of conflict. It was not immediately clear how control of that territory has changed in recent months.
Military denies
A military spokesman denied the army was losing most of its clashes with ISWA.
“It’s not true,” said Brig. Gen. John Agim, adding that no soldiers had died at Gudumbali.
Agim declined to show battle reports or comment on the rest of the situation, other than saying the military did not have enough equipment.
In one of the army’s biggest defeats since Buhari came to power, an ISWA attack on a base in July killed at least 100 soldiers, according to people familiar with the matter. Many of the dead were interred in a mass burial, two sources said.
Other gruelling battles have been fought — at least 45 soldiers killed in Gajiram in June, scores dead and missing after a convoy ambush in Boboshe in July, and 17 killed in Garunda in August. These are just some of the recent attacks, according to military and security personnel, that are taking a heavy toll on the military.
With each victory, ISWA gets stronger, collecting weapons, ammunition and vehicles abandoned by fleeing troops. Its tactics have also improved, using trucks mounted with heavy guns to pin down ill-equipped troops, as well as suicide-bombing vehicles.
“Sitting ducks“
“The military are a bit like sitting ducks, waiting for a very mobile and versatile enemy to strike at a weak point or another,” said Vincent Foucher, who studies Boko Haram at the French National Center for Science Research.
The military has kept details of its most recent challenges and defeats close, rarely acknowledging them or any loss of life, say security sources who have sought briefings.
Buhari’s administration and the military continue to issue statements about victories against an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate that dates back to 2009. Normality is returning to the northeast, it says.
“The country has been stable for the past three years,” Defense Minister Mansur Dan Ali told Reuters last month.
However, the minister, discussing the Jilli attack, acknowledged that a strong and well-equipped insurgent force was capable of wiping out as many as 200 soldiers.
“A crisis morale“
Soldiers have become terrified of the insurgents, afraid to leave their bases, said a security source and a diplomat. While hundreds have died recently, hundreds more have deserted.
One retired general, speaking on condition of anonymity, described “a crisis of morale,” linking the frequent allegations of human rights abuses — rape, torture, shake-downs and extra-judicial killing — to broken spirits.
The Nigerian military denies such accusations, though it set up a panel last year to probe allegations. Its findings have not been made public.
Last month, Nigerian special forces mutinied at an airport, refusing to be deployed after learning that after years in the northeast they were being rotated to another, more dangerous part of the region.
“Many of our troops have been in the theater for over two years,” said one captain. “They don’t know how their families, their wives and children, are.”
Some soldiers said though they do get a few days of leave, it is often barely enough time to go from the field to their families before they must return.
Others said their wages and rations are often embezzled by their commanders, there is too little equipment, and many vehicles are broken and gathering rust. One said his men had to buy blankets from refugees for 300 naira ($1) each to keep warm.
The United States, Britain and France support the military, mostly through training and information-sharing, but it has struggled to secure arms supplies due to human rights concerns.
The United States and Nigeria this year finalized a $500-million deal for 12 Super Tucano fighter planes. British Prime Minizer Theresa May, on a visit to Nigeria last month, promised to increase military support in the war against the extremists.