Stephen Hawking

1942, London, UK

Biography

Stephen Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. He has come to be thought of as the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein. With similar interests — discovering the deepest workings of the universe — he has been able to communicate arcane matters not just to other physicists but to the general public.

Hawking grew up outside London in an intellectual family. His father was a physician and specialist in tropical diseases; his mother was active in the Liberal Party. He was an awkward schoolboy, but knew from early on that he wanted to study science. He became increasingly skilled in mathematics and in 1958 he and some friends built a primitive computer that actually worked. In 1959 he won a scholarship to Oxford University, where his intellectual capabilities became more noticeable. In 1962 he got his degree with honors and went to Cambridge University to pursue a PhD in cosmology. There he became intrigued with black holes (first proposed by J. Robert Oppenheimer) and “space-time singularities,” or events in which the laws of physics seem to break down. After receiving his PhD, he stayed at Cambridge, becoming known even in his 20s for his pioneering ideas and use of Einstein’s formulas, as well as his questioning of older, established physicists.

In 1968 he joined the staff of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge and began to apply the laws of thermodynamics to black holes by means of very complicated mathematics. He published the very technical book, Large Scale Structure of Space-Time but soon afterwards made a startling discovery. It had always been thought that nothing could escape a black hole; Hawking suggested that under certain conditions, a black hole could emit subatomic particles. That is now know as Hawking Radiation. He continued working on the theory of the origin of the universe, and in doing so found ways to link relativity (gravity) with quantum mechanics (the inner workings of atoms). This contributed enormously to what physicists call Grand Unified Theory, a way of explaining, in one equation, all physical matter in the universe.

At the remarkably young age of 32, he was named a fellow of the Royal Society. He received the Albert Einstein Award, the most prestigious in theoretical physics. And in 1979, he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the same post held by Sir Isaac Newton 300 years earlier. There he began to question the big bang theory, which by then most had accepted. Perhaps, he suggested, there was never a start and would be no end, but just change — a constant transition of one “universe” giving way to another through glitches in space-time. All the while, he was digging into exploding black holes, string theory, and the birth of black holes in our own galaxy.

In 1988 Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes , explaining the evolution of his thinking about the cosmos for a general audience. It became a best-seller of long standing and established his reputation as an accessible genius. He wrote other popular articles and appeared in movies and television. He remains extremely busy, his work hardly slowed by Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that affects muscle control) for which he uses a wheelchair and speaks through a computer and voice synthesizer.

“My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Born: January 8, 1942
Oxford, England

English scientist, physicist, and mathematician

British physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking has made fundamental contributions to the science of cosmology—the study of the origins, structure, and space-time relationships of the universe.

Early life

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. His father, a well-known researcher in tropical medicine, urged his son to seek a career in medicine, but Stephen found biology and medicine were not exact enough. Therefore, he turned to the study of mathematics and physics.

Hawking was not an outstanding student at St. Alban’s School, nor later at Oxford University, which he entered in 1959. He was a social young man who did little schoolwork because he was able to grasp the essentials of a mathematics or physics problem quickly. At home he reports, “I would take things apart to see how they worked, but they didn’t often go back together.” His early school years were marked by unhappiness at school, with his peers and on the playing field. While at Oxford he became increasingly interested in physics (study of matter and energy), eventually graduating with a first class honors in physics (1962). He immediately began postgraduate studies at Cambridge University.

Graduate school

The onset of Hawking’s graduate education at Cambridge marked a turning point in his life. It was then that he embarked upon the formal study of cosmology, which focused his study. And it was then that he was first stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a weakening disease of the nervous and muscular system that eventually led to his total confinement in a wheelchair. At Cambridge his talents were recognized, and he was encouraged to carry on his studies despite his growing physical disabilities. His marriage in 1965 was an important step in his emotional life. Marriage gave him, he recalled, the determination to live and make professional progress in the world of science. Hawking received his doctorate degree in 1966. He then began his lifelong research and teaching association with Cambridge University.

Theory of singularity

Hawking made his first major contribution to science with his idea of singularity, a work that grew out of his collaboration (working relationship) with Roger Penrose. A singularity is a place in either space or time at which some quantity becomes infinite (without an end). Such a place is found in a black hole, the final stage of a collapsed star, where the gravitational field has infinite strength. Penrose proved that a singularity could exist in the space-time of a real universe.

Drawing upon the work of both Penrose and Albert Einstein (1879–1955), Hawking demonstrated that our universe had its origins in a singularity. In the beginning all of the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point, making a very small but tremendously dense body. Ten to twenty billion years ago that body exploded in a big bang that initiated time and the universe. Hawking was able to produce current astrophysical (having to do with the study of stars and the events that occur around them) research to support the big bang theory of the origin of the universe and oppose the competing steady-state theory.

Hawking’s research led him to study the characteristics of the best-known singularity: the black hole. A black hole’s edges, called the event horizon, can be detected. Hawking proved that the surface area (measurement of the surface) of the event horizon could only increase, not decrease, and that when two black holes merged the surface area of the new hole was larger than the sum of the two original.

Hawking’s continuing examination of the nature of black holes led to two important discoveries. The first, that black holes can give off heat, opposed the claim that nothing could escape from a black hole. The second concerned the size of black holes. As originally conceived, black holes were immense in size because they were the end result of the collapse of gigantic stars. Hawking suggested the existence of millions of mini-black holes formed by the force of the original big bang explosion.

Unified field theory

In the 1980s Hawking answered one of Einstein’s unanswered theories, the famous unified field theory. A complete unified theory includes the four main interactions known to modern physics. The unified theory explains the conditions that were present at the beginning of the universe as well as the features of the physical laws of nature. When humans develop the unified field theory, said Hawking, they will “know the mind of God.”

Publications

As Hawking’s physical condition grew worse his intellectual achievements increased. He wrote down his ideas in A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. It sold over a million copies and was listed as the best-selling nonfiction book for over a year.

In 1993 Hawking wrote Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, which, in addition to his scientific thoughts, contains chapters about Hawking’s personal life. He coauthored a book in 1996 with Sir Roger Penrose titled The Nature of Space and Time. Issues discussed in this book include whether the universe has boundaries and if it will continue to expand forever. Hawking says yes to the first question and no to the second, while Penrose argues the opposite. Hawking joined Penrose again the following year in the creation of another book, The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind (1997). In 2002 he was likewise celebrating the publication of The Universe in a Nutshell. Despite decreasing health, Hawking traveled on the traditional book release circuit. People with disabilities look to him as a hero.

Honors and commitments

Hawking’s work in modern cosmology and in theoretical astronomy and physics is widely recognized. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1974 and five years later was named to a professorial chair at Cambridge University that was once held by Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Beyond these honors he has earned a host of honorary degrees, awards, prizes, and lectureships from the major universities and scientific societies of Europe and America. By the end of the twentieth century Stephen Hawking had become one of the best-known scientists in the world. His popularity includes endorsing a wireless Internet connection and speaking to wheelchair-bound youth. He also had a special appearance on the television series Star Trek.

Though very private, it is generally known that Stephen’s first marriage ended in 1991. He has three children from that marriage.

When asked about his objectives, Hawking told Zygon in a 1995 interview, “My goal is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

For More Information

Ferguson, Kitty. Stephen Hawking: A Quest for a Theory of the Universe. New York: F. Watts, 1991.

Henderson, Harry. Stephen Hawking. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1995.

McDaniel, Melissa. Stephen Hawking: Revolutionary Physicist. New York: Chelsea House, 1994

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