“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” said the great physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease as a graduate student. He died March 14 at age 76.
Hawking’s work had an impact not only on the scientists studying the cosmos, but on all who ask the “big questions,” such as the origins of the universe and the nature of black holes, the existence of God, and the meaning of life.
Two Dartmouth professors share their memories of the scientist and author of A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, published in 1988, which sold over 10 million copies.
“Hawking was one of those rare life heroes who shine above all of us as a beacon, not just as a brilliant physicist, whose contributions to our understanding of the universe and of black holes will remain forever in the annals of science, but as a life-loving, amazingly resilient person, who never surrendered to his devastating physical ailments,” says Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy and the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy.
“He had the generosity of heart to share his knowledge and inspire millions of readers across the globe. His love for life must be celebrated and remembered by all of us, scientists or not.”
Gleiser had a firsthand encounter with Hawking in 1987. Hawking had arrived to attend a conference at Fermilab, the particle physics and accelerator laboratory near Batavia, Ill., and Gleiser had been asked to meet him at the airport and drive him to the lab.
“The thing that struck me as amazing was, even though he was completely physically disabled, he just kept his energy,” says Gleiser. “That made an impression on me and I guess on everybody that was close to him. I sensed some particular energy between Stephen and his then nurse, who later became his wife.”
Hawking was “my academic grandfather,” says Professor of Physics and Astronomy Robert Caldwell, a theoretical physicist specializing in cosmology. “My PhD adviser, Bruce Allen, was himself a student of Stephen Hawking. When I was a student, Bruce told me stories about Hawking and Cambridge, so that Hawking was already a larger-than-life figure by the time I arrived in Cambridge.
“I was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University as a member of Hawking’s group in the mid-1990s and saw him every week at our group lunch. I was accustomed to referring to people by their last names, but ‘Stephen,’ as he was referred to, was a figure of such fame that he was recognized by just his first name, like a pop star or an international soccer player.
“I was at a birthday celebration for him this summer, a celebration of his life. It was wonderful, like a reunion of old friends and colleagues. I am happy that he lived to see the direct detection of gravitational waves, just a few years ago, by the LIGO collaboration. My adviser, Bruce, spoke about the discovery at the birthday celebration. The gravitational wave observatory recorded the space-time ripples from a pair of colliding black holes—that must have warmed his heart.”
Hawking will long be remembered among physicists for his contributions to gravitation and cosmology, says Caldwell, “for his work on black holes—including Hawking radiation—and the physics of the Big Bang singularity.
“Probably much more important is that he made this esoteric subject interesting to the general public,” Caldwell says.
Joseph Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.