Seldom has a physicist commanded the attention of a world audience the way Stephen Hawking managed to do in his miraculously extended life-span of 76 years. Diagnosed at 21 with motor neuron disease ALS, Hawking defied the prediction that he had but a couple of years left to live, for more than half a century. As Stephen himself noted, he was born exactly three centuries after Galileo. He would have noted, were he aware that the end was nigh in the early hours of March 14 that this day was Albert Einstein’s birthday.
In many respects, the phenomenon of the celebrity scientist in the 20th century originated with Albert Einstein. For Galileo, Kepler or Copernicus to acquire that status was fraught with danger as it challenged religious authority, a sin for which Galileo had to pay, though not so tragically as the reckless Giordano Bruno who was burnt at the stake.
Stephen Hawking had arrived at Cambridge as a member of Trinity Hall, hoping to work with Fred Hoyle, inspired by a summer course given by the latter’s student Jayant Narlikar. Much to his disappointment, Fred Hoyle was not taking on more students and it was suggested that he should work with Dennis Sciama. Under Sciama’s tutelage some outstanding minds were nurtured, including the astrophysicist Martin Rees, now Astronomer Royal of the UK.
Schooled in St. Albans where his father who specialised in tropical diseases had moved, his exceptional mathematical abilities were evident, which enabled him to secure admission for a bachelor’s degree at University College Oxford.
“At Oxford, the prevailing attitude at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to either be brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard was regarded as the mark of a ‘grey man’, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary” he recounts in his memoir “My Brief History” (2013).
He fell in with it, taking up recreational pursuits such as becoming a coxswain for his College boat club. In his exams he was on the borderline between first and second class. He was interviewed for the degree by his examiners who asked him what his future plans were. He told them that if he was given a second class he would stay on in Oxford to do research and if he was awarded a first he would go to Cambridge. The examiners gave him a first! He chose to study general relativity, not quantum mechanics — the two areas are as different as chalk and cheese.
When I went to Cambridge as a 20-year old, the cosmologists I met in Bombay mentioned Hawking’s work. It was to his department that I was headed, the sole Indian in my class. At Cambridge, he was a familiar sight in his motorized wheelchair accompanied by a flock of students all along King’s Parade up to the department in Silver Street. Nobody then foresaw the celebrity status that awaited him.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar had figured out in the course of a voyage to Cambridge — which in his time was by ship — that stars were not so placid as was the prevailing view. A ‘white dwarf’ with less than 1.44 times the mass of the sun would end up collapsing under gravity to remain a white dwarf, Chandrasekhar said. Sciama put Hawking in touch with the Cambridge-educated mathematician Roger Penrose. Penrose and Hawking entered into a fruitful collaboration on black holes and various Cambridge physicists like George Ellis and Brandon Carter pitched in.
Penrose had begun to examine the fates of stars using global topological methods and was able to prove that stars do collapse, under gravity, to become ‘black holes’ from which nothing, not even light, could escape. At the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara where he collaborated with James Hartle, Hawking began to apply quantum field theory to black holes, Hawking had discovered that the creation of particle-antiparticle pairs in the intense gravitational field of the black hole could cause the latter to emit radiation.
One particle could be swallowed by the black hole while the other could escape to infinity. This was the discovery that black holes, when quantum theory is used, could actually emit radiation. This became known as Hawking radiation.
Stephen had extraordinary verve and optimism. He took a bet that the theory of everything would be discovered in 20 years. He conceded that bet in 2004 in his Dirac lecture, citing Gödel’s theorem which shows that no formal system with a finite set of axioms and which satisfies reasonable conditions, could be shown to be consistent or complete.
When he visited New Delhi in January 2001 he said at a meeting with President K R Narayanan that he offered a 50:50 bet that physics would become ‘redundant’ in 20 years. I accepted the bet and therein lies a tale. President Narayanan described him as a triumph of mind over matter. I chipped in saying that Stephen exemplified the human predicament of being confined to a tiny speck of dust in a vast cosmos. Stephen paid handsome compliments to Indian science, saying that Indians are so good at mathematics that it is almost a national characteristic. The President modestly said that he must be an exception! Stephen earnestly enquired of the President what his vision of India’s future was, to which the latter said it was the elimination of poverty and the all-round development of our billion citizens. Narayanan regarded the meeting with Stephen Hawking as one of the high points of his tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan, as he told me at a farewell reception at the end of his tenure. Hawking’s memoir lists the names of the countries whose heads of state he had met and that includes India.
The extraordinary turnout at the Siri Fort Auditorium was unprecedented for a scientific lecture. Wishing to accommodate as many people as possible, we had screens put up in a second auditorium and smaller screens outside the auditorium. Delhi turned out in full force and we made a point of inviting disabled rights activists to attend as well as provide sign language translation for the hearing impaired. A difference was made by not having separate VIP access, which was exclusively reserved for the Hawking convoy. Everyone, including Union Ministers, MPs, the Delhi Chief Minister, distinguished scientists and science administrators, patiently queued up to hear the legendary cosmologist.
Before his lecture we took Stephen around, first to the Jantar Mantar about which he displayed great curiosity and the Qutub Minar which he had not heard about either. I told him that this tower has been rated above Giotto’s Campanile in Florence and I think he was impressed. Makeshift ramps had been put in place for him to ascend levels, after the disabled rights community highlighted the absence of disabled access at our monuments. Altogether it was an elevating occasion, with the paean to science that Stephen’s lecture represented and the way he was feted by the audience. We had hoped he could come again during the Einstein Year in 2005, but that was not to be. In later years I did visit him in his office at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge to which his department had shifted.
Stephen Hawking was exceptionally motivated and unfazed by any challenge. He had clearly taught himself to solve equations in his head, unable as he was to write them.
On my last visit – which I did not expect to be the last – his condition had deteriorated to the point where he could use his fingers only for a short while after which he got tired. He had to scroll the letter keys using a device that tracked his gaze and raising an eyebrow to select the letter.
Even these limited abilities were wasting away, which made him frustrated.During his India visit, he had had the use of the fingers of one hand which enabled him to scroll and compose the text which was fed to a speech synthesizer which produced a rather robotic voice. He was offered the opportunity to have the voice tweaked to sound like his natural voice, but he had grown used to the voice that millions around the world had heard. He was also offered better software to speed up his composition, but he found it cumbersome and preferred to use the one he was familiar with.
At the sole press interaction during his visit, held at the Taj hotel in Mumbai, someone asked whether he would go to the Kumbh Mela to which many Bollywood stars were headed. He shot back, saying he was not a Bollywood star! Another questioner wanted his opinion about communal politics in India, something which was clearly beyond his area of interest. I fielded the question and said that so long as India is a democracy, governments will be voted out if they were perceived to do any harm.
When I met him in Mumbai, his wife Elaine enquired of Stephen whether Daksh Lohiya of Delhi University was a student of his and Stephen replied that he was supervised by his student Gary Gibbons, making him a ‘grand-student.’ In fact Daksh was Stephen’s student too. Daksh had satisfied himself that the arrangements for his Delhi visit followed the detailed protocols that were part of Stephen’s standard itinerary.
Remarkably, the Taj hotel in Delhi, where he stayed with his wife Elaine, graduate assistant Neel and six nurses, had remodelled his rooms to allow for wheelchair access and mobility. A foundation which runs a school for disabled children allowed us to rent a vehicle which had a platform which could be lowered for the wheelchair and then raised. Indian Airlines which sponsored their travel from Bombay to Delhi had an ambulift in place to allow him and his party to deplane before the others, with the CMD of the airline going out of his way to ensure that the visitors were comfortable, quite unlike the experience they had with their international flight to Bombay where they were allowed to disembark, without an ambulift, only after other passengers had been disgorged.
Hawking’s remarkable contributions included the formulation of quantum gravity in what is called Euclidian space-time in which time appears like an imaginary spatial dimension, i.e. a dimension multiplied by the square root of -1. He could then use Feynman’s path-integral approach and calculate probabilities, discarding the paths that had initial singularities. This meant that spacetime did not have a beginning, it is all there, like Einstein’s block universe. When inflationary cosmologies were introduced, Hawking was initially hesitant but soon warmed to the idea. His was an agile mind, accepting new ideas once he figured them out in relation to his intuitions.
Last year’s Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves from the powerful collision of two black holes. Yet the work on black holes that Penrose and Hawking did was not rewarded. Stephen was given a special Fundamental physics prize by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire. It outstrips the Nobel prize in value, at 3 million dollars. The Nobel committee has unfortunately lost an opportunity to honour a physicist who has raised the bar of human aspirations to explore the universe, even as he was confined to a wheelchair.
Stephen Hawking, atheist though he was, should be honoured with a state funeral and have his mortal remains interred in Westminster Abbey to join other great Britons such as Isaac Newton. Pace Auden, one might say: “Earth receive an honoured guest: Stephen Hawking is laid to rest.”