Martin Rees: Stephen Hawking at 70

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Astronomer royal and master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Like Hawking, he studied under Dennis Sciama in the 1960s

'Scientific superstar' Stephen Hawking turns 70 on 8 January 2012. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

I first met Stephen in 1964. I was in my first week as a Cambridge graduate student. He was two years ahead of me in his studies – but already unsteady on his feet and speaking with difficulty. I learned that he might not live long enough even to finish his PhD.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few could be as huge as the odds I’d have given, back then, against him reaching his 70th birthday – after astonishing achievements that have made him the most famous living scientist.

In his first few years of research, he came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea) and how our universe began. These earned him election to the Royal Society at the exceptionally early age of 32.

He was by then so frail that we guessed he could scale no further heights. But this was still just the beginning. He then worked, as I did, at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. I would often push his wheelchair into his office. He would sit motionless for hours reading a book on quantum field theory – not a subject that he had hitherto engaged with. He couldn’t even turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he had his greatest “eureka moment” – encapsulated in an equation that he wants on his gravestone. He discovered a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory that has helped set the agenda for fundamental physics ever since.

He has probably done as much as anyone else since Einstein to extend our grasp of gravity, space and time. And he continues to write technical papers and attend premier conferences – doubly remarkable in a subject where few healthy researchers stay so long at the frontiers.

But the second half of Stephen’s life has been a crescendo of fame and celebrity. When A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success. The concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos grabbed people’s imagination. Had he achieved equal distinction in, say, genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably wouldn’t have achieved such worldwide acclaim.

After his disease was diagnosed [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] Stephen’s expectations dropped to zero. He says that everything that happened since then was a bonus.

And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions around the world have had their cosmic horizons widened by his books and TV appearances; and even more have been inspired by a unique human achievement against all the odds….
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Written by physicsgg

January 2, 2012 at 8:53 am


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