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March 26, 2018 | by  | in News | [ssba]

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking

The 14th of March was Albert Einstein’s birthday, a day to celebrate. But instead we lost another one of the brightest minds this world has ever seen. Stephen Hawking passed away peacefully in his home. To an outside observer it would seem he had some sort grand plan, aligning Einstein’s birthday, Pi day, and his passing all in one. He always did have brilliant plans and ideas, so who knows.

With the loss of such a great mind, it is only appropriate that we remember his works.

Dr Hawking shot to fame in 1988 when he published A Brief History of Time. His book was

celebrated around the world. It spent four years crowning the London Sunday Times’ best-seller list. A Brief History of Time was hailed by other scientists for making space-time understandable to the general public. Since its publication, it has been translated into 40 different languages, making it accessible to people across the globe. The best way to describe why Hawking produced this book is in his own words:

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

He was on a quest to discover our universe, and that is an endeavour not of one man, but of humanity.

While A Brief History of Time is what made Hawking a household name, his first extraordinary achievement was his PhD thesis. Hawking published Properties of Expanding Universes 52 years ago on the 15th March 1966, when he was just 24.

In 1966, the theory of the “Big Bang” was still struggling to gain traction. The overwhelming thought of the scientific community was that we lived in a “Steady State” universe (a universe that had existed in perpetuity). However, recent discoveries had really begun to challenge that notion, especially the observation of the microwave background radiation in 1964, which would not fit with the “Steady State” theory.

Hawking’s paper solidified the evidence for the “Big Bang” and the expansion of the universe. His research proved that it was in fact possible for all of our universe to exist in a single point of space and time. He proved that singularities (generally found inside black holes) were not unexplainable, but were in fact something we could expect to observe in nature. Six months ago Hawking gave the University of Cambridge his permission to publish his full thesis online. His first major achievement, publicly available, so all of us can learn about the universe together.

His next great discovery was what is now termed Hawking radiation, possibly the biggest scientific achievement he made. Theory had held that black holes could never lose mass. Their gravity was so strong that nothing could ever escape. But in 1974 Hawking published a brand new paper in the journal Nature, challenging the very foundations of the scientific understanding of black holes. His theory states that throughout the universe, pairs of particles are spontaneously created. The spontaneous particles have positive and negative energy, maintaining the energy balance of the universe. These forms of particles are called virtual particles, because they are destroyed so quickly that they are impossible to detect.

However, if one of these spontaneous particles appears along the event horizon of a black hole, with the negative energy half beyond the event horizon and the positive outside the event horizon, then the particles would be ripped away from each other and become real instead of virtual. The negative energy part of the particle would be sucked into the black hole and destroy some of the black hole’s mass. The positive half would be emitted into space, taking some of the energy with it. The released particle is called Hawking radiation. Over time this means that black holes will lose mass and eventually evaporate.

The discovery of Hawking radiation fundamentally challenged ideas that had been held by the scientific community, and helped redefine our understanding of space. Hawking has had a serious effect on our understanding of the universe.

It is only appropriate to leave the last words to another scientist:

“His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson



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