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

Stephen Hawking. (AP)
Updated 16 March 2018

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.


Why the UN is struggling to function

Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, called the budget shortfall “the worst cash crisis facing the UN in nearly a decade,” jeopardizing, among other things, peacekeeping efforts and the management of the UN’s New York headquarters. (Ray Hanania)
Updated 16 October 2019

Why the UN is struggling to function

  • World body facing 'the worst cash crisis' in nearly a decade due to mounting arrears
  • Crisis is marked by lack of cash to pay staff and vendors or to fund critical programs

NEW YORK CITY: The UN is facing its worst liquidity shortfall in 74 years of operation with a deficit of $1.385 billion, which is making it difficult for the world body to pay staff and vendors or fund missions.
The crisis has forced Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to begin cutbacks in all operations.
Warning on Oct. 8 that the problems are at a “tipping point,” he called it “the worst cash crisis facing the UN in nearly a decade,” jeopardizing peacekeeping efforts in Yemen, Myanmar and the management of the UN’s New York headquarters, offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, and investigative commissions in Bangkok, Addis Ababa, Santiago and Beirut.
A UN budget review presented this week showed that the crisis is being driven by the lack of cash to pay staff and vendors or to fund critical programs, and outlined spending cuts that will begin immediately pending a resolution of the situation.
“The cash deficits occur earlier in the year, linger longer and run deeper,” said Catherine Pollard, UN under-secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance.
“For the second successive year, we have exhausted all regular budget liquidity reserves, despite several measures we had taken to reduce expenditures to align them with available liquidity.”
Chandramouli Ramanathan, UN's controller, detailed the debt in a presentation with Pollard on Oct. 11 that identified $1.385 billion in debts, more than half of the UN’s 2019 annual budget of $2.85 billion.
Ramanathan said that only $1.99 billion had been collected this year, including past year arrears.
“If the trend continues … you will pretty much see that at some point we are running out of liquidity so often — everything depends on the liquidity if the liquidity runs down, we have to prioritize the payment,” he said.
“It will come to the point where you will not have enough staff or not have enough to pay the vendors.”
Ramanathan said that 75 percent of the UN’s budget is for employee and building costs. The remainder includes air charters, fuel, rations, IT support and political missions, which he said are all in jeopardy.
This does not include the costs of peacekeeping missions, nearly $8 billion for 2019, but which are nearly $3.7 billion in arrears.
A slew of operating spending cuts at the UN began on Oct. 14, ranging from no new hirings or filling of vacant positions to switching off heating and airconditioning.
Ramanathan said that these were emergency steps but warned failure to address the “liquidity crisis” would result in other more serious cutbacks including funding of operations, missions and more.

UN OPERATING SPENDING CUTS

• No new hirings or filling of vacant positions

• Reducing operating hours of UN facilities including the New York City headquarters

• Suspending release of new documents, studies and translation of documents

• Curtailing travel of UN officials, meetings or publicly scheduled receptions

• Cutting back operations at the UN headquarters and its worldwide centers, including turning off the use of electricity for certain building operations such as escalators, and shutting down the UN’s fountains

• Heating and air conditioning to be turned off at 6 p.m. each day and not turned on until 8 a.m. at UN buildings

“We are trying to cut back on non-salaried costs, operating hours to meet obligations and to vendors,” he said.
Ramanathan said that the UN was prohibited by its charter from borrowing money. He acknowledged that traditionally member countries were late in paying, usually until the last half of the year or last quarter, but the late payments had become “later and later” each year.
“The US is the largest contributor and they have a large outstanding amount … the US has a large amount outstanding,” Ramanathan said, noting that the UN does single out and list specific debts or debtors.
“We are in active engagement with all the states that owe large amounts.”

Ramanathan identified seven member nations that had failed to pay their memberships fully and accounted for 97 percent of the debt owed: the US ($1.06 billion), Brazil ($143 million), Argentina ($51.5 million), Mexico ($36 million), Iran ($26.9 million), Israel ($17.7 million) and Venezuela ($17.2 million).
He said that a total of 65 other countries were in arrears for their annual dues, based on country size and per capita income, but that represented less than 3 percent of the operating budget shortfall. Only 128 members were fully paid up for this year.
According to Ramanathan, the US owes its annual membership dues of $674 million for 2019, and $381 million for previous years.
UN officials declined to comment on reports that Guterres is seeking to address the unpaid US monies in a meeting with US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the UN and the US financial obligations.
But an independent report by UN Dispatch, which is funded by the UN Foundation, reported on Dec. 6, 2016, that the UN’s headquarters generated $3.69 billion in benefits to New York City’s economy through jobs, commerce, hotels and retail spending by delegates and their staff.
One example of the costs includes accommodating the more than 1,500 journalists, delegates and support staff at the opening of the UN’s 74th General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 23.

The cash deficits occur earlier in the year, linger longer and run deeper.

Catherine Pollard, UN under-secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance

The UN erected a huge outdoor media tent in its grounds to accommodate journalists, providing access to the internet, electrical outlets, video and audio feeds, tables and work stations.
But these journalists, staff and delegates also brought with them revenue for the host city — filling hotels and restaurants, and generating profits for retailers, cabs and other businesses.
Despite the financial benefits New York City reaps from the UN headquarters presence, and the power the US wields at the UN, Trump brushed aside reports of the budget crisis or his nation’s failure to pay its share of the UN costs during his address on Sept. 24 to the UN General Assembly.
And a week later, Trump tweeted in response to UN officials’ budget concerns: “So make all Member Countries pay, not just the United States!”
The UN could suspend the voting of any nation that fails to pay its dues under Article 19 of the UN Charter, which states: “A Member of the United Nations which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, permit such a Member to vote if it is satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member.” (Article 19 of the Charter of the United Nations)
A UN staff member said that it was unlikely that the UN would implement the rule against the US and that they fully expected the US “to pay at least part of what it owes” before the end of the year.
The UN was created in 1945 with the goal of ending human-rights abuses.
The power of the UN rests with the 15-member Security Council, which the US is a member of and controls through its veto to block any policies or resolutions it opposes.
The UN General Assembly includes 193 nations, serving as a platform for advocacy and action.