At the age of 21, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and the doctors gave him about two years to live. Fortunately for cosmology, they were 53 years off the mark. Hawking, who died yesterday in Cambridge, was able to put in a good half-century of work on black holes, the Big Bang, gravity and other fundamental questions, and held the Lucasian Chair, the most prestigious office in mathematics. Earlier Lucasian professors include the Steam Age computing pioneer Charles Babbage, quantum theory trailblazer Paul Dirac and Isaac Newton himself, with whose work the story of gravity began.
Newton had infamously accommodated God as a prime mover in his universe, and in 2010, Hawking earned much publicity by denying his illustrious predecessor in his book Grand Design, which urged believers and philosophers to spar with him. And he dismissed Heaven and the afterlife as “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark”.
Hawking’s life project was to understand the universe. All of it. And he wanted to get it done before the lights went out. He was not the greatest physicist of all time — Stockholm did not grant him the Nobel — but in the realm of cosmology, he stood tall. Taller than Carl Sagan, with whom he shared an interest in proselytising to the laity. His academic peers will remember him for several intriguing ideas, which were developed beautifully — yes, there is a spare beauty in equations. Apart from his most celebrated work on black holes, Hawking will be remembered for explaining quantum fluctuations, tiny irregularities in the dispersion of matter in space-time from which stars and galaxies were born. And for taking astrophysics back to the singularity before the Big Bang, while looking ahead across aeons to the very end of time.