Remembering Stephen Hawking
From explaining black holes, to warnings about AI, the synthesised voice of a wheelchair-bound Professor popularised science and served as an example of human intellect and determination triumphing over a cruel illness.
By Endre Szvetnik, Senior Editor at Sparrho
“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all”
Most of humanity will remember Professor Stephen Hawking as a tireless science communicator, travelling the globe and explaining the workings of the Universe.
His rare disease made him almost completely paralysed, but laughing in the face of the illness he turned it around and made his synthesised computer voice into a brand of its own, synonymous with the quest for scientific knowledge. He became so iconic that he had even earned himself a cameo appearance on the Simpsons and Futurama.
Expanding Open Access to Science
For us at Sparrho, Professor Hawking was an inspiration for another reason as well: because of his campaign to democratise science and make research papers freely accessible for all.
He put his money where his mouth was and made his famous 1966 thesis, “Properties of expanding universes”, public — making it one of the most downloaded items from Cambridge University’s Open Access Repository, noting:
“Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.”
Living with ALS
Born in 1942 in Oxford, Hawking found himself in Cambridge by the age of 20 and became world-famous by studying and explaining the physics of black holes.
The phenomenon of how black holes lose energy and fade became known as Hawking radiation, and in the process he published his best-selling book, The Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes in 1988.
It was he who suggested that, based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the events of the ‘cosmic clock’ could be tracked back to prove that there was a definite beginning to the universe and that the Big Bang created it.
By the age of 30, the rare disease called ALS, which causes gradual paralysis, made him wheelchair-bound and he was 44 when, after an attack of pneumonia, he permanently lost his voice in an operation to save his life.
So, he started communicating by tapping a keypad that was connected to a voice synthesiser on his wheelchair.
When asked about how he coped with ALS (that kills most people much more quickly), Hawking replied in a typically stubborn manner:
“I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.”
It certainly did not prevent him from going to the pub with his fellow researchers.
However, initially the diagnosis plunged him into despair and Jane Wilde, who became his first wife, played a crucial role in keeping his spirits up.
As a cruel present from fate, ALS made Hawking famous and gave him a global platform to talk about science, while other researchers carried on working in relative obscurity.
Although his life as a scientist focused on black holes, he is remembered for his idea of a unified ‘Theory of Everything’ that would explain the existence of the universe.
Despite his cult status, Professor Hawking was not widely celebrated in the world of science. For example, he did not even feature in the Top 10 of greatest living physicists, based on a 1999 survey of his peers.
Also, a 2016 research paper on black holes had a number of scientists find it ‘unconvincing’.
Hawking was on occasion partial to doomsday theories. For example, in 2014 he warned that the Higgs Boson, or ‘God Particle’ that scientists were trying to find in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, would ‘wipe out the universe’.
This was after he lost a $100 bet saying that scientists would fail to find the Higgs Boson, crucial to the scientific understanding of the universe.
Other scientists however explained that even if the idea had merit, it would take billions of years to happen.
Also, around the same time, Hawking warned about the dangers of AI and how it could ‘end humanity’. He told WIRED that AI would eventually become a “new form of life that will outperform humans”.
“I fear that AI may replace humans altogether. If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself,” he said.
However, experts suggest we are still very far from a ‘superintelligence’ or ‘singularity’ of cognisant and sentient algorithms that are self-conscious and feel like humans.
Hawking also warned humanity that Earth could become uninhabitable — due to human conflict and the changing climate — and we should make plans to colonise space. (Read about what it would take here.)
But, despite his stern warnings and sometimes disputed science, Hawking will be remembered as a scientist, who through his sense of humour and determination inspired millions to learn more about the world around us. So, let us say goodbye to him, by one of his famous quotes, celebrating his curiosity:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”