A large part of Hawking's mystique comes from the fact that the branch of theoretical physics in which he distinguished himself is impenetrable to those who don't speak its language. Becoming the doyen of a subject as abstruse as black holes (phenomena that - by definition - cannot be observed) requires an extraordinarily powerful imagination.
Hawking - like his contemporaries and successors - spent a career trying to bridge the chasm between Einstein's theory of general relativity (big physics) and the current paradigm of quantum mechanics (small physics). These incompatible views of our universe which have vexed physicists for almost a century find a collision point in the singularity of collapsed stars. And it's in this vicinity that Hawking spent his entire career.
His biggest achievement was arguably the proposition that black holes - contrary to contemporary thought (including much of his own work) - lose mass through the leakage of heat energy. The orthodoxy held that the collapsed star at the centre of a black hole, infinitely small and infinitely dense, was so powerful that it sucked everything including light into its orbit. Yet Hawking fastidiously prodded and poked that notion until, in a moment of genius, he applied the second law of thermodynamics to black holes. In doing so he not only made significant progress towards proving that black holes lose energy through entropy, and thus shrink, but also (briefly) brought together two schools of physics.
Fittingly, that leaked radiation is now known as Hawking's Radiation. If it is eventually observed (which it may well be
in the near future) then Hawking's contribution will be lauded all the more. But what earned Hawking fame down here on Earth, far from the outer reaches of space were his human qualities, his foibles, his idiosyncrasies.
The fact that he was diagnosed with a severe motor neurone
disease in his university years is now well known, not least because it was the subject of a 2014 movie (The Theory of Everything). Reduced to near-total paralysis, Hawking was given just a few short months to live. But those months eventually stretched out to half a century. Digging through the obituaries and hagiography this week we discover a man who was certainly brilliant but also one whose impulsiveness nearly cost him his scientific reputation on numerous occasions. He also displayed a stubbornness that bordered on obsession, but some of his greatest discoveries came from (begrudgingly) proving that his own ideas had been wrong.
Hawking's ability to explain
science helped people approach it (we wouldn't go as far as to say demystify it). It was his wit more than his genius that saw his 1988 book A Brief History Of Time become an international best seller. He was famous also for his many memorable cameos in popular culture; on Star Trek, The Big Bang Theory, and The Simpsons.
In a surprising twist Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's death. And he died on the 14th of March, which is not only the 139th anniversary of Albert Einstein's birth but is also known as 'pi day' (3.14). Even more surprising was the fact that one of his greatest regrets was not having run over Margaret Thatcher's toes with his wheelchair.