Stephen Hawking: One of science's brightest stars

His insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired millions of cosmic enthusiasts

stephen-hawking-guest-reuters (File) Stephen Hawking addresses a public meeting in Cape Town | Reuters

It is a matter of strange coincidence. He was born exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo and bid adieu to this world on the birthday of Albert Einstein. A scientist with a stature similar to those two giants, Stephen Willaim Hawking (1942-2018) became an icon in the past five decades.

He was born in Oxford, England, which was considered a safe place to have babies, during the Second World War. Stephen was forced to take Physics as his pet subject Mathematics was unavailable at Oxford, while his father, an alumnus of Oxford, wanted his son to graduate in Medicine. During his undergraduate years, Hawking once estimated that he worked only 1,000 hours during his three years at Oxford. And he knew he would be in the borderline between a first- and second-class degree. The ever humorous Stephen told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first class, he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD.

The rest is history. In October 1962, Hawking arrived at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) at the University of Cambridge to do research in cosmology. His supervisor was Dennis Sciama, although he had hoped to get Fred Hoyle (a staunch opponent of Big Bang theory) who was working in Cambridge. Choices were never on Hawking’s side—he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease in 1963. Doctors expected him to live for only two more years. Since Hawking had a form of the disease that progressed more slowly than usual, he could complete his PhD thesis titled 'Properties of Expanding Universes' in the next two years.

After a five-year sojourn at various research institutes, the wheelchair-bound Hawking, who was dependent on a computerised voice system for communication, moved back to DAMTP in 1973 as a research assistant. In the same year he published his first academic book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. The very next year, Hawking was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He became a Reader, then a Professor and till recently held the position of Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at DAMTP.

All through his career, Professor Hawking worked on the basic laws that govern this universe. His interest was in unifying Einstein's general theory of relativity and quantum theory. This implied that black holes should not be completely black, but rather, should emit 'Hawking' radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. He firmly believed that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time.

Hawking’s book My Brief History recounts his childhood of post-war London to his celebrity status in the same city. The book describes him as an inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him ‘Einstein’; he even placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of black holes.

In his latest book for children, George and the Blue Moon, George and Annie got ready to solve a mystery set on one of the cosmic waterworlds of space. He questions whether there is life under the icy crust? His two young heroes win places on a Mars training programme which has a dangerous and unexpected twist.

Stephen Hawking is one of the brightest stars of science universe whose insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired millions of cosmic enthusiasts.

Sudhindra Haldodderi is a former DRDO and HAL scientist. He is consultant with QuEST Global, Bengaluru