The world is mourning the recent passing of Stephen Hawking at the age of 76, following a long battle with a debilitating neurodegenerative condition that left him paralyzed. The renowned physicist has made a lasting impression on those who knew him, as well as scientists around the globe. “The world has lost a beautiful mind and a brilliant scientist,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai via Twitter.
Apple CEO Tim Cook also took to Twitter to share his sentiments. “We will always be inspired by his life and ideas.”
“We have lost a colossal mind and a wonderful spirit,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee via Twitter. “Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also honored Hawking’s memory with these touching words: “We lost a great one today. Stephen Hawking will be remembered for his incredible contributions to science – making complex theories and concepts more accessible to the masses. He’ll also be remembered for his spirit and unbounded pursuit to gain a complete understanding of the universe, despite the obstacles he faced. May he rest peacefully as his legacy and brilliance live on.”
As we pay our respects and say goodbye to Hawking, let us take a moment to look back on the life that he lived and his contributions to the world of science.
Stephen Hawking’s Beginnings
Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England on January 8, 1942, the first of Frank and Isobel Hawking’s four children. He began to notice problems with his physical health while attending Oxford. He would occasionally trip and fall, his speech began to slur, etc. However, he did not look into the problem until his first year at the University of Cambridge in 1963. Although Hawking had mostly kept symptoms to himself, his father began to notice a problem and took him to see a doctor.
Hawking underwent a series of tests over the next couple of weeks. He once spoke of the process and the types of tests that were conducted. “They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio-opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with X-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn’t tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an atypical case.”
Following extensive testing, Hawking was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) causes the nerves which control muscles to shut down. Upon diagnosis, Hawking was given just 2 ½ years to live. Fortunately, that estimate was far from accurate.
Despite this diagnosis and subsequent paralysis, Hawking went on to become a brilliant scientist, professor, and author. He performed groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology, and his books helped to make science accessible to everyone.
In 1988, Hawking published A Brief History of Time, which offered an overview of space and time, the existence of God, and the future. The book was a remarkable success and spent more than four years at the top of the best-seller list in the London Sunday Times. Since publication, over ten million copies have sold worldwide, and the book has been translated into over 40 languages.
Despite the intention to make science more accessible, the book was not as easy to understand as some originally thought. This prompted Hawking to follow-up with another book, The Universe in a Nutshell, which served as a more illustrated guide. This was eventually followed up with an even more simplified book, A Briefer History of Time. In addition to simplifying the concepts in the first two publications, this book also touched on new developments, such as those within the field of string theory.
In September 2010, Hawking published the book The Grand Design, in which he argued against the idea that God could have created the universe. Despite his previous notion that the existence of a creator was both plausible and compatible with scientific knowledge and theories, his years of study and work had resulted in the conclusion that the Big Bang was the product of physics alone. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” he said. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
Hawking’s Take on the Big Bang Theory
Stephen Hawking has been a strong believer in the Big Bang, particularly in regards to inflation theory. When a publication stated that recent findings contradicted this theory and instead pointed to a “big bounce,” Hawking was outraged. The publication claimed that the universe works on a cycle of expansion and contraction, wherein it is currently engaging in a period of expansion.
The authors of the publication (physicists Anna Ijja, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb) cited flaws they found in inflation theory, which included an inability to discover primordial gravitational waves, as well as a lack of “inflationary energy.”
“Given all these problems, the prospect that inflation did not occur deserves serious consideration,” they wrote. “Today we are fortunate to have sharp, fundamental questions imposed on us by observations. The fact that our leading ideas have not worked out is a historic opportunity for a theoretical breakthrough. Instead of closing the book on the early universe, we should recognize that cosmology is wide open.”
In response to the publication, Hawking and 32 of his fellow scientist penned an angry letter. In the letter, the scientists declare “categorical disagreement” with the statements made within the article, explaining that the theory of inflation remains one of the best models for the origin of the cosmos. “Like any scientific theory, inflation need not address all conceivable questions,” they wrote. “Inflationary models, like all scientific theories, rest on a set of assumptions, and to understand those assumptions we might need to appeal to some deeper theory. This, however, does not undermine the success of inflationary models.”
“No one claims that inflation has become certain; scientific theories don’t get proved the way mathematical theorems do, but as time passes, the successful ones become better and better established by improved experimental tests and theoretical advances. This has happened with inflation. Progress continues, supported by the enthusiastic efforts of many scientists who have chosen to participate in this vibrant branch of cosmology.”
Hawking’s View of the Importance of Travelling Beyond Earth
Stephen Hawking was known to have a vision for the future, which included humanity’s exploration beyond the Earth and its atmosphere. He believed that the survival of humans depended on its ability to branch out and evolve on planets other than our own.
“I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” said Hawking in a 2008 interview with CNN. “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
In May of last year, Hawking warned that humans have approximately 100 years to leave Earth in order to ensure their survival. “I strongly believe we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation,” he said. “We are running out of space on Earth, and we need to break through the technological limitations preventing us from living elsewhere in the universe.”
In June, he addressed an audience at the Starmus Festival in Norway, warning of the threats looming in the not-so-distant future. “Our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate,” said Hawking. “We have given our planet the disastrous gift of climate change, rising temperatures, reduction of the polar ice caps, deforestation and decimation of animal species. We can be an ignorant, unthinking lot. We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”
Some of the biggest tech entrepreneurs have now begun to make that vision a reality. Chief among them is Elon Musk, who has mentioned plans for his company SpaceX to send the first astronauts to Mars by 2019. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has developed a space exploration firm, Blue Origin, through which he plans to send tourists into space beginning in 2019 as well.
Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic once promised Hawking a trip to space. Branson took to Twitter to express his condolences. “A sad day for all at Virgin Galactic. Professor Stephen Hawking was part of our family from day one. His support for opening space, his enthusiasm to fly, humbled and inspired. RIP Professor and thank you for all you have given us.” Branson’s company plans to send tourists into space by next year as well.
Hawking’s Fear of Artificial Intelligence and Its Possibilities
Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man whose passion for science was immense. However, when it came to the field of robotics, he was more than a little wary. Hawking was known for his fear of the eventual progression of artificial intelligence and the use of such technology in developing autonomous weapons. In 2015, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, and Jack Dorsey signed an open letter warning of such dangers.
Hawking also spoke at a technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal last year, telling attendees that artificial intelligence could be the worst thing to happen in human history. “Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it,” he said. “Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization, or the worst. We just don’t know. So, we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI or ignored by it and side-lined or conceivably destroyed by it.”
While AI may never become the robot overlords we see in science fiction films, Hawking’s fear that they may be weaponized is valid. As world leaders fight to obtain as much power as possible and overcome those in opposition, there is a high probability that they will use whatever weapons at their disposal, and the introduction of artificial intelligence could result in damage and loss of life on a far greater scale than anything we have ever known.
“AI could be the worst even in the history of our civilization,” said Hawking. “It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”
Hawking also warned that artificial intelligence might one day surpass humanity. “I fear that AI may replace humans altogether,” he said in an interview with Wired. “If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.” Artificial intelligence that is capable of self-replicating would be disastrous in the wrong hands.
Hawking’s Final Work
Hawking worked on his final book, A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, until his death on March 14th. In the book, he predicted and end to the universe, which he said would result from the stars running out of energy. Despite this somber prediction, he theorized that scientist could potentially find alternate universes using probes on space ships, which would allow humans for form an even better understanding of our own universe and our place in the cosmos.
The work was published alongside his co-author, Professor Thomas Hertog. “He has often been nominated for the Nobel and should have won it,” said Professor Hertog. “Now he never can.” Of this latest work, however, he says that Hawking could have, and likely would have, won.
A Dream Come True
Although Hawking never fully achieved his goal of flying into space, he came remarkably close during a visit to Kennedy Space Center in 2007. On April 26th, Hawking soared weightlessly aboard a Zero-G Corp. jet that took off from the shuttle runway and completed a series of parabolic arcs.
The original plan was for him to complete a single parabola, which is a maneuver that provides approximately 25 seconds of weightlessness during steep dives. These parabolas are often used to train NASA astronauts, and they briefly subject passengers to higher gravity which makes them feel twice as heavy as they would on the ground. The plan was to complete one, and if all went well, he could complete two more.
“His eyes lit up,” said Zero-G’s chief technical officer Byron Lichtenberg. “He just had a grin from ear to ear, that first time he floated.” He was so elated and doing so well that doctors continued to clear him for a total of eight parabolas. “He was just such an incredible man and such a brilliant person, that to be able to let him float free out of that wheelchair was really amazing,” said Lichtenberg.
A Final Farewell
As the world says goodbye to Hawking, it is comforting to imagine that his boundless energy lives on and is drifting into the cosmos where he knew he belonged. Thanks to his brilliant mind, passion for his work, and tremendous contributions, his legacy will live on and serve as an inspiration for generations to come.