‘Science needs ambassadors like Hawking’, scientific community pays tribute

As the world mourns the passing of British physicist Stephen Hawking, scientists pay tribute to his contributions to his field and to society.

Written by Amitabh Sinha , Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | Published: March 14, 2018 4:44:11 pm
Stephen Hawking dead, Stephen Hawking black holes, A Brief History of Time Hawking, Stephen Hawking tributes, Hawking radiation, Stephen Hawking Cambridge University, astrophysics For the last three decades, Stephen Hawking, a British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who died today aged 76, was the best identified, and possibly the most admired, scientist in the world. (File Photo)

It was not without reason that he was compared to Albert Einstein. Rarely do scientists become as famous as he did, even though his work, just like Einstein’s, was largely incomprehensible to most people outside the domain of his expertise. What added to his aura was the fact that he triumphed in science despite his debilitating physical disability.

For the last three decades, Stephen Hawking, a British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who died today aged 76, was the best identified, and possibly the most admired, scientist in the world. Confined to a wheelchair because of his near complete paralysis, and able to speak only through a computerised speech generator, Hawking regularly appeared in public for lectures and talks that were hugely popular, especially amongst students and youngsters who used to feel transported to the fascinating world of black holes and other remarkable heavenly bodies in outer space that could only be imagined in science fiction. Hawking’s talks, however, were anything but fiction. He spoke of amazing discoveries made by physics and cosmology in the 20th century and the possibilities that these pointed to, and inspired people to think and imagine the universe beyond the obvious.

“Stephen Hawking was a larger than life figure. People may not remember him so much for his work on black holes but on how he brought science in the public gaze. The man on the street might not be aware of his scientific theories and research, but admired him for the way overcame his afflictions,” said Somak Raychaudhury, director of Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Raychaudhury did his PhD at the University of Cambridge where Hawking has worked for most of his career. “I was a 22 year old student at Cambridge when I first met Hawking in the 1980s. He was in a wheelchair but had not undergone the operation that took away his ability to speak. In fact I had attended a series of lectures that eventually became part of his best-selling book ‘A Brief History of Time’,” Raychaudhury said.

Hawking was best known for his work on black holes, those unimaginably dense structures in the universe that remain one of the most puzzling subjects in cosmology. In 1974, he showed that rotating black holes emit radiation – later named Hawking radiation – that leads to a loss of energy and the ultimate evaporation of the black hole. This was contrary to the then prevailing understanding of black holes which were known not to let anything escape from them. A few years later, Hawking proposed that during this evaporation process, the ‘information’ contained in the black hole vanishes permanently. This set off a major debate – unsettled till date – because its consequences were seen as violating the quantum theory that describes the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.

“The work that he did along with his colleagues like Roger Penrose and Jacob Beckenstein would have made him famous anyway. I think he would have been a household name even if he did not get into public outreach of science so much. His had already earned fame through his scientific achievements. It was ground-breaking research and added, in very fundamental ways, new information to our understanding of the universe,” Gautam Mandal, a senior professor at Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who works in the related fields of quantum field theory, string theory and gravity, said.

Mandal said besides being an outstanding scientist, Hawking had very jovial and pleasing personality which endeared him to his audience. “He had a very British sense of humour. You could sense a wicked smile on his face when he was about to crack a joke. And that was quite often,” he said. Sandip Trivdi, director of TIFR, recalled how he had found Hawking wearing a kurta in his hotel room during his 2001 India visit and had complimented him for it. “He immediately replied (through his machine) ‘But where is your kurta? He had a great sense of repartee and always had a comeback,” I said.

“He was an inspiring figure, not just for scientists but general public as well. People were just in awe of him, seeing him become one of the greatest scientists of our time despite his serious physical limitations. I remember when he had given this public talk at TIFR in 2001, a massive crowd had gathered, overflowing outside the auditorium, and he started by telling the audience ‘You must be wondering how I think about myself’, and then proceeded to say that he thought of himself as a scientist with some qualities or traits that are peculiar to them, to any other scientist’. This was his way of conveying that he had indeed overcome all the odds even in his mind. There was immediate response from the crowd in the form of a thunderous applause,” Trivedi said.

“He had this amazing ability to connect to people. He was a great communicator. And of course, the subjects he used to deal with, black holes, outer universe, are very fascinating topics. People loved listening to him,” he said. Raychaudhury of IUCAA said one of his greatest regrets was being unable to get Hawking to Pune.

Stephen Hawking dead, Stephen Hawking black holes, A Brief History of Time Hawking, Stephen Hawking tributes, Hawking radiation, Stephen Hawking Cambridge University, astrophysics He spoke of amazing discoveries made by physics and cosmology in the 20th century and the possibilities that these pointed to, and inspired people to think and imagine the universe beyond the obvious. (File Photo)

“Much as we tried we could not get Hawking for a conference on general relativity that was organised in 1997. He was extremely ill at that time couldn’t come. After Einstein, he was probably the most iconic scientific figure. Science needs ambassadors like Hawking,” Raychaudhury said.

Dibyendu Nandi, head of the Centre for Excellence in Space Sciences India (CESSI) at IISER Kolkata said the world had lost one of the most outstanding scientists of all times. “For our generation, he was an inspiration, not just for astrophysicists but across all sciences. His remarkable perseverance and the zeal of scientific discovery transcending bodily constraints will remain a fine example of the capabilities of the human mind for generations in space-time,” he said.

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