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.


Trump drops new North Korea sanctions because he ‘likes’ Kim

In this file photo taken on February 27, 2019 US President Donald Trump (L) speaks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. (AFP)
Updated 50 min 42 sec ago
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Trump drops new North Korea sanctions because he ‘likes’ Kim

  • “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” the president’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday abruptly announced the cancelation of sanctions imposed by his own Treasury Department to tighten international pressure on North Korea.
“It was announced today by the US Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!” Trump said in a tweet.
He appeared to be referring to measures unveiled Thursday that targeted two Chinese companies accused of helping North Korea to evade tight international sanctions meant to pressure Pyongyang into ending its nuclear weapons program.
But The Washington Post reported, citing Trump administration officials, that the president’s tweet referenced future sanctions that had not been announced and were scheduled for “the coming days.”
The Thursday sanctions were the first new sign of pressure since talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke down in Hanoi less than a month ago.
However, Trump, who has previously spoken of “love” for the totalitarian leader, appears to retain hope that his strong personal relationship will bear fruit.
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” the president’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said.
Adam Schiff, a Democrat who heads the intelligence committee in the House of Representatives, blasted Trump for canceling sanctions “imposed only yesterday and championed by his own national security adviser, because he ‘loves’ Kim.”
“Foolish naivete is dangerous enough. Gross incompetence and disarray in the White House make it even worse,” Schiff tweeted.
On Thursday, Trump national security adviser John Bolton had tweeted that the sanctions were meant to put an end to “illicit shipping practices” by North Korea.
“Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion,” he said.
China complained, saying that it did enforce all UN resolutions and opposed “any country imposing unilateral sanctions and taking long-arm jurisdiction against any Chinese entity according to their own domestic laws.”
This was Trump’s second major, unexpected foreign policy announcement by Twitter in two days.
On Thursday, he sent a tweet reversing decades of US policy and pledged to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the hotly contested Golan Heights border area with Syria.