On March 14 of this year we said goodbye to a major science revolutionary of our lifetime: Professor Stephen Hawking.
For those of us not scientifically-inclined, we’ll probably recognise him from pop culture—as the guy that publically humiliates Principle Skinner in The Simpsons, or as the guy who invented gravity in Futurama.It may be hard to believe, but his life actually contributed more to our world than those epic TV moments or MUSE’s Black Holes and Revelations.
Diagnosed at the age of 21 with the incurable, neurodegenerative disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Hawking was physically incapacitated for the majority of his life.
Although this crippling disease afflicts the motor neurons of the brain, which otherwise allow us to move, it held no sway over his brilliant mind.
This fortuitously permitted Hawking to make his major scientific discoveries from 28 years of age, right through to the age of 76—older than the average life expectancy for males.
It could be viewed as chance that he passed away on the March 14, the day that co-hosts Pi day (the other pie), and the birthday of Professor Albert Einstein (he brought you E=mc2 ).
The patterns don’t end there either. Hawking shares more than a death-birthday with Einstein, as his life of scientific discovery followed a similar trajectory.
In fact, it followed the template for amazing scientists: discovery, ridicule, acknowledgement and, eventually, eminence.
Typically, historic figures from the scientific community—like Galileo Galilei and Gregor Mendel—received distinction only posthumously. However, like Einstein, the late Hawking was fortunate enough to achieve greatness in his own lifetime.
But what were some of these major discoveries?
Hawking’s bread-and-butter was quantum physics.
For most of us, bread and butter is our bread-and-butter, not quantum physics, and quantum physics is a scary world of concepts out of our grasp.
Nonetheless, here is a breakdown of some of Hawking’s major discoveries for the physics-naïve:
Theory of general relativity
Hawking continued this work from Einstein.
Basically, massive objects have massive gravity. The bigger, the more gravity. What we know as gravity is actually time and space getting bent around a massive object in space, controlling its motion of anything within this “bend”.
But this “bending” and its influence only spans so far, and that distance limits its strength.
That explains why the furthest we can get ourselves from the ground is a jump (strong gravity), whereas the moon happily orbits us every night (weak gravity), and why we orbit the sun (huge gravity), but why we haven’t crashed into it (too far).
Black holes and singularities
Stars are some gargantuan objects in the cosmos (“that’s a huge bitch!”). Our sun is a star, and has a massive field of gravity which forcefully pushes inward on the sun’s core; but all the heat, light and fuel that are pumped out from the core’s nuclear reactions counteract the “implosion” forces of the sun’s own gravity.
When these forces aren’t strong enough to keep a star together, it implodes. Then, those supermassive objects become supermassive black holes, and black holes are the Margot Robbie of space: irresistible.
When that happens, we get what’s called a singularity; here, all the laws of physics and nature—like time and space—mean absolutely nothing.
This is one of the few times where the theory of general relativity gets thrown out the window. When that happens, space and time (as we know it) becomes obsolete, and everything nearby disappears inside the black hole’s infinite suction (forget about your Dyson).
Believe it or not, our mate “the Sun” is a little bit small (it’s not all about size though, it’s how you use it), so fortunately that’s not gonna happen for us. We might be unlucky enough to have a nomadic black hole meander over to our solar system though.
When a black hole finally runs out of things nearby to consume from our cosmic pantry, it disappears itself, and heralds this goodbye by purging the energy and information it consumed. That’s right—a cosmic vom.
So, nothing gets completely lost inside a singularity, but what’s spewed up gets altered (such that it resembles this article written in wingdings font).Integrity, non-bias and self-acknowledgement of incorrectness is fundamental to being a legit scientist.Considering that scientific discovery is riddled with mistakes, trial and error, this may be Hawking’s most significant achievement. And it sends a powerful message to the next generation of Curies, Einsteins and Hawkings.