Tuesday 24 April 2018

Greatest star in science firmament goes out as famed physicist Hawking (76) dies

Physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. Photo: Getty Images
Physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. Photo: Getty Images

Danny Boyle

Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist and author of 'A Brief History Of Time', has died at the age of 76.

He died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of yesterday morning, his family said.

Professor Hawking, one of the world's finest scientific minds, was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease (MND) in 1964 at the age of 22 and was given just a few years to live.

He eventually became confined to a wheelchair and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication.

Despite this, he continued to travel the world giving lectures and writing scientific papers about the basic laws that govern the universe. Prof Hawking explained the big bang and black holes in his best-selling 'Brief History Of Time'.

As tributes to the acclaimed physicist poured in from around the world, the University of Cambridge said he was "an inspiration to millions" and his work will leave "an indelible legacy".

Actor Eddie Redmayne, who starred as Hawking in 'The Theory Of Everything', said in a statement: "We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet."

In a statement Prof Hawking's children Lucy, Robert and Tim said: "We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today."

Prof Hawking arrived at the University of Cambridge in 1962 as a PhD student and rose through the ranks to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics - a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton - in 1979.

His most famous insight concerned black holes. He discovered the phenomenon which has become known as Hawking radiation, where black holes leak energy and fade to nothing.

Nasa remembered Prof Hawking as a "renowned physicist and ambassador of science", while inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, said: "We have lost a colossal mind and a wonderful spirit. Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking."

Prof Hawking was left having to use a wheelchair by the time he was 30. In 1986, aged 44, his voice was removed to save his life after an attack of pneumonia.

From then on, he spoke through a computer synthesiser on the arm of his wheelchair.

"I am quite often asked: how do you feel about having [MND]?" he once wrote. "The answer is, not a lot.

"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."

Prof Hawking was Britain's most famous modern day scientist, a genius with a razor-sharp wit who dedicated his life to unlocking the secrets of the universe. "My goal is simple," he once said. "It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all."

Much of Prof Hawking's work centred on bringing together relativity (the nature of space and time) and quantum theory (how the smallest particles in the universe behave) to explain the creation of the universe and how it is governed.

Prof Hawking shot to international fame after the 1988 publication of 'A Brief History of Time', one of the most complex books ever to achieve mass appeal and which stayed on the Sunday Times best-sellers list for no fewer than 237 weeks. An estimated 10 million copies have been sold worldwide.

He said he wrote it to convey his own excitement over recent discoveries.

Prof Hawking retired from his position as Lucasian Professor in 2009 and became the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery director of research in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics until his death.

Astronomer Royal, Prof Lord Martin Rees, emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge, said: "Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty.

"This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. Amazingly, he lived on to the age of 76.

"Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn't just survive. He became one of the most famous scientists in the world."

Prof Hawking's groundbreaking work earned him dozens of accolades over his lifetime, but the coveted Nobel Prize always eluded him. His discovery in 1974 that black holes should emit radiation was initially controversial as it was widely accepted that nothing, not even light, could escape their gravity.

His theory was based on mathematical concepts arising from quantum mechanics. It stated that the emission of radiation eventually causes black holes to "evaporate" and vanish.

Although it became widely accepted, Hawking Radiation was never proved by astronomers or physicists - if it had, it would almost certainly have earned him the Nobel Prize.

In January 2016, he joked that his lack of a Nobel was "a pity". He said: "A mountain-sized black hole would give off X-rays and gamma rays, at a rate of about 10 million megawatts, enough to power the world's electricity supply.

"It wouldn't be easy however, to harness a mini black hole - about the only way to keep hold of it would be to have it in orbit around the Earth. People have searched for mini black holes of this mass, but have so far not found any. This is a pity because if they had I would have got a Nobel Prize."

After the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2013, almost five decades after British physicist Peter Higgs developed the theory in the 1960s, Prof Hawking admitted he was disappointed the so-called "God particle" had been found.

The Higgs boson is theorised to give other particles mass, but Prof Hawking said in a speech at London's Science Museum: "Physics would be far more interesting if it had not been found" - it would force scientists to develop alternative solutions to the problem of mass.

He joked: "I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle wouldn't be found. The Nobel Prize cost me $100."

Prof Higgs also held some controversial views. During a video presentation at the Tencent Web Summit in Beijing, he warned that the ever-rising human population, and its mounting energy needs, could render Earth uninhabitable by the year 2600.

The response from Prof Hawking was: "Shouldn't we be content to be cosmic sloths, enjoying the universe from the comfort of Earth? The answer is no."

Although in June 2017 at Starmus, an arts and science festival in Norway whose advisory board he sat on, he concluded: "The Earth is under threat from so many areas that it is difficult for me to be positive."

"One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this," he warned, referring to the potentially habitable alien planet Gliese 832c. "But we should be wary of answering back.

"Meeting an advanced civilisation could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn't turn out so well."

Prof Hawking was scathing about global warming denial.

He had other fears and warnings for the future, stating in 2014: "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Irish Independent

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