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Inside the Mind of a Genius: Remembering Stephen Hawking

To pay tribute to Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, 2018 at age 76, here is an exclusive interview the renowned theoretical physicist granted Reader’s Digest in 1984.

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Stephen HawkingPhoto: David Fowler/Shutterstock

The World of Stephen Hawking

Physically wasted and barely able to talk, Stephen Hawking, a brilliant British physicist, has become nearly the perfect cerebral being, thinking his way deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of creation.

He greets visitors to his Cambridge University office with an impish grin and a hint of conspiracy in blue eyes twinkling behind steel-rimmed glasses. Even at 42, his boyish face makes him look more like a student at the British university than a distinguished professor of mathematics. But his body, slumped awkwardly in a motorized wheelchair, is thin and wasted, with the muscle structure of a bedridden old man. His speech is so laboured it is almost impossible to understand.

Despite these handicaps—perhaps because of them—Stephen Hawking has managed some of the greatest strides in physics since Albert Einstein. In fact, be often has been portrayed as this half-century’s answer to Einstein.

Some physicists even think Hawking could pull off one of the greatest coups in science history. That would be creation of the single theory reconciling the twin pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which declares that gravity controls the behaviour of planets, stars, galaxies and the universe itself and does it in a predictable manner; and the quantum mechanics theory, which maintains that, at the atomic level, matter behaves randomly. Einstein, who spent the last 30 years of his life trying to reconcile these seeming contradictions of nature, rejected the randomness of quantum mechanics. “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos,” he said.

Finding the underlying interaction that explains both of these theories is an almost religious quest to some scientists, who believe that such a unification would remove the last barrier to a fundamental understanding of the universe. Just as Einstein pulled back the curtain on the atomic age, a unifying theory could usher in a new era of understanding for mankind. Formulating this theory is the goal of Stephen Hawking, whose life is a remarkable lesson in grit, adaptability and the power the human intellect.

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Oxford UniversityPhoto: Shutterstock

Stephen Hawking’s Early Years

Hawking, whose father was a research scientist, is the eldest of four children of a bookish, tightly knit family. At Oxford University, which he entered in 1959, he was free-spirited, witty, somewhat unruly, and popular among his friends in the town’s pubs. For a while Hawking was coxswain on the second of his college’s rowing crews.

Because of his first-rate mind, his teachers tolerated Stephen’s casual approach to academic life. Though he did little work, he could easily handle any mathematical problem. At graduation he took a special oral exam to determine whether he should receive a first-class honours degree, which he needed to gain a scholarship for a graduate physics program at Cambridge, Oxford’s ancient rival.

In response to a question from an examiner about his future plans, Hawking replied: “If I get a first, I shall go to Cambridge. If I receive a second, I will remain at Oxford. So I expect that you will give me a first.” He received a first.

During his early months at Cambridge, though, a physical disorder became apparent. He began stumbling, slurring his speech and having trouble controlling his arms and legs. Doctors determined that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling disease that renders the voluntary muscles useless and is usually fatal. Hawking realized that he might not live to see his 25th birthday.

At Cambridge, finding it hard to walk without a cane, Hawking became profoundly depressed. He abandoned his studies and spent much of his time drinking.

In January 1963, while visiting his family in the city of St. Albans, near London , Hawking was invited to a party. There he met Jane Wilde, a brown-haired, blue-eyed student of languages, who was about to go to Westfield College in London. Jane liked Stephen for his wit and questioning intelligence, and he admired her energy. Stephen’s deteriorating physical condition and shortened life expectancy did not put Jane off. After a two-year relationship, they were married.

The marriage turned out to be the watershed in Hawking’s life. He stopped worrying about dying and started working. And he became a father: Robert was born in 1967, Lucy in 1970 and Timothy Stephen in 1979.

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Explosion in spacePhoto: Shutterstock

A Brief History of Time

Shortly after the wedding, Hawking began to display a powerful scientific genius. One of the problems of the mid-1960s involved the “big bang,” the enormous blast that most physicists were convinced created the universe. They knew that the universe was now expanding at a steady rate, but when theoreticians ran their calculations backward, reversing the expansion, it was impossible to figure out what had happened at the instant of the big bang itself. At that point, all the equations broke down.

Hawking was intrigued with the notion that the universe had begun as a singularity, a point of infinite density in which time and space merged as one. He began working on the idea with Roger Penrose, then at the University of London and one of the world’s foremost mathematicians. By 1969 the pair had produced a now-famous theorem showing that the universe must have begun as a point of infinite density if Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct. “In other words,” Hawking recalls with a grin, ”we had shown that time has a beginning.”

By the early 1970s, Hawking’s condition had so deteriorated that he was confined to a wheelchair. But his mind was soaring, and he was coming up with one innovative theory after another. What would become his greatest theoretical triumph involved black holes.

When a large star exhausts its thermonuclear fuel, it collapses under the force of its own gravitation. If conditions are right, the star then compresses itself into something so dense that physicists believed nothing, including light, could escape from it.

As Hawking turned his fertile mind to black holes, he began uncovering secrets never before imagined. In 1971 he postulated that the death of a star was not the only way black holes could be created, that much smaller black holes could have been formed by the cataclysmic forces at work during the big bang. Mathematically, he determined that as many as a million black holes could exist in our own galaxy. He calculated that each of these mini-holes would be no larger than a proton, but each would contain the mass of a Mount Everest.

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Black holePhoto: Shutterstock

Wall of Skepticism

In 1973 Hawking began mulling over the behaviour of matter in the vicinity of black holes. Forced by his worsening physical condition to give up using pencil and paper, Hawking did all his theoretical work in his head. Because it was difficult to remember complex equations, he translated his problems into geometrical diagrams as far as possible and then dictated the results to an assistant. As Hawking’s brain twirled and juggled the formidable equations, he made a discovery so preposterous and so profound that he was sure he had made a mistake.

What Hawking had found was that black holes, in defiance of every known law, emit a steady stream of particles, or radiation. This meant that a black hole itself could evaporate! For large black holes, such as those created by the collapse of a star, or the enormous holes that astronomers think may lie at the core of galaxies, the evaporation process would take many times the age of the universe. But for small black holes, Hawking calculated an average life expectancy of about ten billion years —a long time, but less than the age of the universe. Eventually, when a small black hole was no longer able to hold itself together, it would burst apart in a shower of high-energy gamma rays. Some of them, Hawking calculates, should be popping off about now.

His black-hole theory was so unconventional that even Hawking, usually confident in the creations of his intellect, questioned it for weeks more, going over the calculations again and again. What he was saying was too bizarre. Nobody would believe it. If he was right, it would change everything in physics. If he was wrong, it would take him years to regain his credibility.

Finally, in February of 1974, Hawking, then 32, delivered to a group of fellow physicists a paper entitled “Particle Creation by Black Holes.” Slides of his work were shown while Hawking laboured to explain them. When the presentation was completed, the questions that were asked by his peers —while not overtly negative —revealed a solid wall of skepticism.

But Hawking was not about to give up. The next month, his paper was published in Nature, the prestigious British science weekly. Within days physicists around the world were talking about his theory. Since then, mathematical evidence has accumulated that black holes do emit particles and explode. And the evidence has been confirmed by other theoreticians using different approaches. The black-hole emission itself is now called “Hawking radiation.”

Since the black-hole dynamics Hawking uncovered were similar to those thought to have occurred during the big bang, his theory could help physicists understand how subatomic particles were created and how they interacted during that explosive genesis. But far more important, Hawking had applied the laws of quantum mechanics to a black hole, an object described by the laws of general relativity. This was the first step toward finding the underlying interaction that would bring together the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. With typical Hawking wit, he issued this rejoinder to Einstein’s challenge to quantum mechanics: “God not only plays dice, but also sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”

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Cambridge UniversityPhoto: Shutterstock

The Origin of Everything

The dirty-brick structure housing the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics looks like a 19th-century factory lost among the Gothic facades and spires of Cambridge. Hawking commutes there each day in his motorized wheelchair from his home on the ground floor of a Victorian house about a kilometre away. His office contains racks of physics texts, a computer terminal, pictures of his children, and a special page-turner. Scientific papers are photocopied so he can view them.

In his office, Hawking spends most of his time thinking about the very early universe: the first trillionth of a second or so after the big bang. “The early universe holds the answer to the ultimate question about the origin of everything we see today, including life,” he says.

Hawking is a tough and stubborn man. And he has been blessed by having the right people around him—admiring colleagues and his strong, close family. (At home, Jane and a team of nurses now take care of nearly all Stephen’s physical needs, from brushing his teeth and feeding him, to dressing him.) But his main strength is that, as the ravages of disease have gradually taken his physical powers from him, he has come to live his life largely in the mind, finding there powers so prodigious that they have even surprised itself.

For Stephen Hawking, his wheelchair has become a unique vantage point from which to seek the basic law of nature. He has become nearly the perfect cerebral being, a small speck of human creation comprehending the whole.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest