As the scientific world mourns the passing of the man many consider a modern-day Einstein, Stony Brook University faculty remembered and reflected on the world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who died peacefully at his home in Cambridge on March 14.
Martin Roček, a Stony Brook professor of theoretical physics and a member of the C. N. Yang Institute, first met Hawking in the late 1970s, when he was a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University. In 1979, Hawking hired Roček to teach him about the concept of supergravity, a significant extension of Einstein’s theory of relativity developed at Stony Brook by Roček’s colleague Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, along with Daniel Freedman and Sergio Ferrara.
“Though I failed to teach Stephen supergravity, it was nevertheless a very productive time for Stephen,” Roček said. “During this time, among many other projects, he explored the effects of gravitational instantons, and performed calculations developing the consequences of his then recently proposed Information Paradox; though his argument that Hawking Radiation implied the breakdown of quantum mechanics is generally not accepted today (Stephen himself rejected it later in life), it stimulated a wealth of important research, some of which is described in Leonard Susskind’s entertaining book The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics.”
Roček spent almost three years with Hawking, and so had the chance to get to know him both as a scientist and as a human being.
Many people have heard of Stephen Hawking, the ‘genius in a wheelchair,’ but far fewer know what he did and what he was like,” said Roček, who has served as a professor of physics at Stony Brook since 1983. “He was a great mentor. Many of his students and postdocs went on to very successful academic careers.
“He was a role model for those overcoming physical adversity, and through his many books, a great popularizer of physics and science in general. He will be missed,” Roček continued.
At the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease (also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis [ALS] or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and was given only a few years to live. While his condition gradually paralyzed him, he remained able to communicate through a speech-generating device, initially through use of a handheld switch, and eventually by using a single cheek muscle.
Hawking was famed for his work with black holes, quantum theory and relativity, and wrote several popular science books, including A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has returned to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list since his death.
“Stephen’s first big breakthrough was the realization that Penrose’s theorems about the inevitability of singularities in black holes in Einstein’s Theory of Gravitation could be applied in reverse, to imply the inevitability of the Big Bang singularity and the beginning of time,” Roček recalled.
“His next, and most important, breakthrough was the realization that due to quantum effects, black holes are not black — they emit what is now called ‘Hawking Radiation.’ This shocking discovery implied that, despite the many orders of magnitude of scale that separated them, Einstein’s theory could not ignore the quantum world.”
Luis Álvarez-Gaumé, director of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook, noted that despite Hawking’s numerous contributions, he was never awarded a Nobel Prize.
“His seminal contributions are deserving of a Nobel, and it is a pity he was not awarded the medal,” said Álvarez-Gaumé, who obtained his PhD from Stony Brook in 1981.
“One can imagine Stephen, with his great sense of humor saying, ‘That’s right, but on the other hand, how many living Nobel laureates have ever been characters in “The Simpsons” and in “Star Trek”?,’” Álvarez-Gaumé said.
“The death of Dr. Stephen Hawking is a loss not just for the greater scientific community, but also for the community of patients, family members, caregivers, and researchers worldwide impacted by and dedicated to curing the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis,” Sher said.
“In one way, Dr. Hawking was a rare ALS patient, living for more than 50 years with his disease while the majority of patients succumb in fewer than 5 years,” he said.
“In another way, Dr. Hawking was not rare, in that I have seen in my interactions with ALS patients and their families and medical professionals, the same embracing of life, the strong sense of humor, the dedication to making their work and their disease something that motivates them to make others’ lives better.’
– Anthony Vertucci