March 18, 2018

The power of perseverance: A tribute to Prof. Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, was Britain's most famous modern day scientist, a genius who dedicated his life to unlocking the secrets of the Universe.

Stephen Hawking

By Douglas Anele

Aside from the deaths of pop music icon, Michael Jackson, and the greatest boxer to date, Muhammad Ali, I cannot remember the death of any global figure that moved me emotionally as the demise of one of the most brilliant contemporary cosmologists, Prof. Stephen William Hawking. But before I discuss the life of this remarkable human being, it is pertinent to make a few observations about death. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy informs its readers that death, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, is the cessation of life which cannot be experienced, nor be a harm, nor a proper object of fear.

Therefore, a prime consideration is the apparent symmetry between the state of being dead and the state of “being” not yet in existence. Still, death has been feared and thought of as a harm all over the world since the emergence of homo sapiens. The consciousness of our mortality, that each person will die at a certain date, is one of the strongest reasons why our primitive ancestors invented the idea of reincarnation. Interestingly, although belief in rebirth is both ancient and global, scientists are increasingly applying the tools of empirical research to ascertain whether indeed there is anything at all that survives the destructive effects of death on the physical infrastructure that supports human life as we know it.

Be that as it may, death, no matter how tantalisingly mysterious and difficult it might be as a subject of rational inquiry, will continue to attract the attention of philosophers, scientists, theologians and thoughtful people across the world because we cannot stop speculating about death until we can refrain from thinking about life, given that both phenomena are inseparable. As the philosopher John Hick correctly observed in his highly informative work, Death and Eternal Life, “If we wish to think realistically about life we cannot avoid also thinking about death.” Despite the florid and rhetorical style with which Bertrand Russell, presented his ideas concerning the origin and ultimate fate of human existence, his pessimistic view about it is essentially correct.

In the book, Mysticism and Logic, Russell wrote: “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of the human genius, are destined for extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” It must be mentioned in passing that, like most people with precarious health condition, Prof. Hawking was painfully aware that he might die at any time.

Prof. Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on January 8, 1942, precisely three hundred years after the death of Galileo Galilei. At ten, he entered St. Albans school, from where he proceeded to the University College, Oxford. Hawking wanted to study mathematics; but because the subject was not available at Oxford he took up physics instead. Three years later, he graduated with first class honours degree in natural science.

Around October 1962, Hawking arrived at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), Cambridge university, to research on cosmology, since there was on one working in that area at the time in Oxford. At Cambridge, He was hoping to work under the noted astronomer, Prof. Fred Hoyle; instead his supervisor was Prof. Dennis Sciama. Hawking was awarded a doctorate degree in 1965, having successfully completed his thesis entitled “Properties of Expanding Universes.” Shortly afterwards, he became a research fellow, and in 1969 he was selected as a Fellow for Distinction in Science at Gonville and Caius college.

Before then, in 1966, he had won the Adams prize for his essay, “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time.” From the Institute of Astronomy in 1968, Hawking went back to DAMTP and was appointed a research assistant. He collaborated with George Ellis to publish his first academic book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. In 1974, Prof. Hawking was elected to the prestigious Fellow of the Royal Society, and became Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). A year later, he was appointed Reader in gravitational physics at DAMTP, and became full Professor in 1977. Subsequently, he occupied the four centuries-old chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics for thirty years (1979-2009), a post previously held by two distinguished scientists, Isaac Barrow and Isaac Newton. Before his lamentable death on Wednesday March 14, 2018, Prof. Hawking was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at DAMTP.

The contributions of Prof. Hawking to the gravitational physics and cosmology are impressive. He applied his prodigious scientific intellect to identify and explain the fundamental laws that govern the universe. For instance, in collaboration with Roger Penrose, he demonstrated that Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity entails that space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and end in black holes, the latter being a region of space-time that, due to its immense gravitational force, nothing (including light) can escape. Their research findings indicated that general relativity should be unified with quantum theory developed by Niels Bohr and others.

One implication of such unification discovered by Hawking is that black holes should not be completely black, but instead emit energy (called Hawking radiation), and eventually evaporate and disappear. He also suggested that the universe has no edge, which implies that the way the universe began was completely subject to the laws of science. For some years, the renowned physicist worked with colleagues on resolving the question whether, in analogy with the law of conservation of energy, information is conserved in a black hole. Prof. Hawking authored many publications which include, apart from the ones mentioned earlier, General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey, 300 years of Gravitation (both co-authored with W. Israel); A Brief History of Time; Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays; The Universe in a Nutshell; A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design (with Leonard Mlodinow). He also wrote books for children, such as George’s Secret Key to the Universe, The Last Dinosaur and Titanic Cat.

As the title of this essay suggests, Prof. Stephen Hawking’s life is a paradigm of the power of perseverance in the face of crippling adversity, the power of mind over matter, so to speak. When he was twenty-one, doctors found that he had amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a disease which, in simple terms, causes the nerves that control the muscles of its victims to stop functioning. After the diagnosis, doctors gave him only two and half years to live.

Although Hawking suffered from depression periodically as a result of his poor health which eventually led to paralysis from neck down, like every true hero he defied the odds. He not only lived over fifty years more than the doctors predicted, he continued to research and to publish. Actually, Prof. Hawking turned adversity into advantage. Before the diagnosis, he was not serious with his studies. According to him, “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.” Nevertheless, with the sudden realisation that he might die before earning his doctorate, he plunged himself into his work, the result of which can be seen in the groundbreaking contributions he made in theoretical physics and cosmology.

Like most scientists propelled by the quest for knowledge and concern for humanity, Prof. Hawking worked hard and used different media, particularly television to make science accessible to a wider audience worldwide. In addition, he was a champion of space exploration for the benefit of humanity, an atheist, a consistent critic of the uncontrolled use of artificial intelligence, and an advocate of caution in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Not surprisingly, the renowned physicist was honored with many awards and prizes.

Prof. Stephen Hawking’s greatest legacy lies in the fact despite crippling adversities an individual can reach the zenith of human achievement in his or her chosen area of human endeavour, that disability is not lack of ability but an opportunity to overcome the challenges of life for self-actualisation. It is fortunate that Prof. Hawking was born in a society that values knowledge and takes care of its citizens. Imagine if he was a Nigerian; I am sure he would have died much earlier, especially from lack of adequate care. My sincere condolences to his family and loved ones. Concluded.