World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died

14 Mar 2018

Prof Stephen Hawking at the 2015 BAFTA ceremony in London. Image: Martin Hoscik/Shutterstock

Stephen Hawking has died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, aged 76.

Celebrated physicist and cosmologist Prof Stephen Hawking died peacefully in his home in Cambridge in the UK in the early hours of this morning (14 March).

The author of a number of popular science books, including A Brief History of Time, was well known for his work on cosmology, including theories around black holes, relativity and the possibility of alien life.

‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love’

The fact that he lived to 76 defied the odds because at the age of just 21, Prof Hawking was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease and doctors only expected him to live for a few short years. Because he had a slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he was able to live more than 50 more years.

His disease left him wheelchair-bound and only able to speak through the assistance of a voice synthesiser. Up until his death, he was still able to communicate using a single cheek muscle attached to the synthesiser.

In a statement, his children Lucy, Robert and Tim said: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.

“His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

A star in his time

Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which provided a simplified overview of the universe, sold more than 10m copies worldwide.

He was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and he was a vigorous supporter of the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.

While at school, with the help of his maths teacher, Hawking and his friends built a computer from clock parts, a telephone switchboard and other recycled components.

Nicknamed Einstein, his aptitude for maths and science was noted, and he won a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford at the age of 17.

Regarded as a difficult student, and setting his eyes on graduate study of cosmology at Cambridge, he famously said: “If you award me a first, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a first.”

In 1966, Hawking worked with Roger Penrose to extend the singularity theorem concepts, which included the theory that the universe might have started as a singularity.

In 1970, he postulated the second law of black hole dynamics – that the event horizon of a black hole can never get smaller.

In 1974, he presented work that proved black holes emit radiation, which is known today as Hawking radiation, a discovery that was considered a breakthrough in theoretical physics.

Returning to Cambridge, he focused on the origins of the universe, not ruling out the existence of a creator. “If the universe has no boundaries but is self-contained … then God would not have had any freedom to choose how the universe began.”

In 1988, A Brief History of Time was published to widespread acclaim and it topped the bestseller lists in the UK and the US for months, turning Hawking into a celebrity.

Hawking’s observations have continued to inform and delight. In 2014, he warned of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence (AI), stating: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

“It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

In 2015, he added his name to an open letter also signed by Elon Musk calling for regulation of how the technology of robots and AI develops so that it won’t end humanity.

In 2016, he put pressure on exploration companies to colonise another planet, offering a deadline of 1,000 years.

“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years,” Hawking said.

“By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”

With the loss of Stephen Hawking, we have lost one of the finest minds and one of the brightest stars of our times.

Prof Stephen Hawking at the 2015 BAFTA ceremony in London. Image: Martin Hoscik/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years