Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Brilliant Star Extinguished

It was with a considerable sense of melancholy that I heard about the death of Dr Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and beloved populizer of science. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963, Dr Hawking wasn't expected to live to gain his PhD, but he beat the odds and coped with his disability through the use of a motorized wheelchair and his signature voice synthesizer which he joked provided him with an American accent.

Dr Hawking's particular genius lay in formulating theories reconciling physics at the quantum level with physics at the galactic level- the itsy bitsy and the biggie wiggie. With Roger Penrose, Hawking authored a series of theorems regarding singularities, one of which he later revised, which held that the Big Bang began as a singularity.

Dr Hawking lent his name to Hawking radiation. It was thought that black holes had an inescapable gravitation field, not even light could defy the force of gravity. Hawking theorized that black body radiation could be emitted from a black hole due to quantum effects. While Hawking radiation hasn't been observed, analogues have been analyzed in labs.

Hawking's big debut in the popular imagination was the 1988 publication of A Brief History of Time, a worldwide bestseller. He quickly became a celebrity, even showcasing his self-deprecating humor in sitcom cameos. In 2005, Hawking released a shorter edition of A Brief History of Time in collaboration with Dr Leonard Mlodinow, who delivered two Secret Science Club lectures. Sadly, I have never seen Dr Hawking in person.

Dr Hawking didn't shy away from politics, or current events- he set the record straight when anti-Obamacare hacks claimed that he would have been allowed to die if he had been British. He also spoke elegantly about the dangers of global warming, specifically calling out Donald Trump. Right wingers seemed to have had bugs up their asses about him, as Stephen Colbert hilariously pointed out.

Stephen Hawking was beloved, and the tributes to him from other scientists have been touching, as was our beloved nerdy former president's tribute. Dr Sean Carroll's tribute to him for the BBC was particularly beautiful- Dr Carroll also delivered a Secret Science Club lecture. Dr Neil Degrasse Tyson, another of the great populizers of science, interviewed Dr Hawking on a recent episode of Star Talk:

My favorite Stephen Hawking moment was his flight in microgravity, when he was freed from the tyranny of the weight of his frail body:

It's a beautiful moment- he looks positively beatific, and his attendants are treating him with genuine tenderness. It takes a lot to get this cynical Yonkers boy to get misty-eyed, but this does it. I was hit by the news of his death, but I will remember him for his brilliance, his passion, his humanity, and his ability to instill his sense of wonder in others, including myself.

As a postscript to this blog entry, I am posting links to three Secret Science Club lectures which mention Hawking radiation- Dr Charles Liu's Astrophysics Endterms Lecture, Drs Gubser's and Pretorius' Tag Team Black Holes Lecture, and Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf's Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory Lecture. I can't help but think that Dr Stephen Hawking would rather have seen us nerding out than crying... not that I'm not doing both. It's been noted that Hawking, who was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, died on Pi Day and Einstein's birthday, which is perhaps the best nerd joke of all time.

1 comment:

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

It was after he died that i discovered that Hawking had collaborated with the Monty Pythons in a performance of "The Galaxy Song", which first appeared in the Meaning of Life film:
with Hawking and the Pythons in 2015 ;
from the 1983 film

The film explicitly returns to the title topic several times, but the deepest consideration of the theme is in the scene which immediately follows The Galaxy Song - a meeting in the boardroom of the Very Big Corporation of America, Inc. Since this presentation states that matter is energy, and that the universe is filled with energy fields which we cannot normally perceive, one could regard it as somehow related to the Galaxy Song. To quote:

CHAIRMAN: ...Which brings us once again to the urgent realisation of just how much there is still left to own. Item six on the agenda: the meaning of life. Now, uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
HARRY: That's right. Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and, uh, what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: people are not wearing enough hats. Two: matter is energy. In the universe, there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this soul does not exist ab initio, as orthodox Christianity teaches. It has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved, owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
BERT: What was that about hats, again?
HARRY: Oh, uh, people aren't wearing enough.
CHAIRMAN: Is this true?
EDMUND: Certainly. Hat sales have increased, but not pari passu, as our research initially--
BERT: But when you say 'enough', enough for what purpose?
GUNTHER: Can I just ask, with reference to your second point, when you say souls don't develop because people become distracted,... [rumble] ...has anyone noticed that building there before?

[text quoted from
scene viewable at]

To unpack this just a bit - "hats" is being used in this scene in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. When it is noted that hat sales have not increased in step with population growth or the sales of other items of clothing - 'pari passu' - we are speaking of hats as physical objects. However, there is also the idiom of "to wear more than one hat" - to have more than one role or set of responsibilities - which would increase one's ability to take differing perspectives and observe oneself more objectively.