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A Physicist, Poet and Popularizer

The secrets of the gods are best left hidden and unsaid. Earthlings who do otherwise receive divine chastisement in Greek mythology. The prophet Tiresias is sightless as if a curse has been wrought upon him for his clairvoyance. The prophetess Cassandra can see the future but she is never believed by the mortals around her.

Few scientists have revealed more about the origin and working of the universe than Stephen Hawking, who died on 14 March at the age of 76. Despite his disability and with superhuman defiance of his lot, the Cambridge physicist revealed enough of the secret of the universe to humanity.

Hawking’s intelligence enabled him to see beyond the physical reality; his poetic vision rendered it comprehensible to the human mind. Fintan O’Toole described the poetry of Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) thus: ‘He doesn’t just see eels or fish or frogs. He feels their slime.’ If the universe is unyielding and unflattering and if human beings’ place in it insignificant, Hawking never shirked from saying so. He once characterized humans as just a ‘chemical scum’ on the surface of a moderate size planet orbiting an unexceptional star.

One of his seminal discoveries is that the second law of thermodynamics (entropy or disorder forever on the rise) applies in black holes as well. When high-entropy systems get sucked into a black hole, the entropy of the latter increases. It implies that black holes do have a temperature and must as a result give off radiation. But ‘Hawking radiation’, as his theory has come to be known, still awaits validation from observation and data. Thus, the Nobel laurel eluded him.

But Hawking was already considered the greatest living scientist in the world. Few scientists have revealed the universe to more people than he had. In the early 1980s, he chose Bantam Books as the American publisher for his popular science blockbuster A Brief History of Time because he wanted to see his treatise on Big Bang and black holes available at airport bookshops. The book had since occupied for long periods of time the shelves and the best-selling lists of many places, and attracted a readership in the millions.

With a voice synthesizer, Hawking delivered his theories of everything to everyone interested enough to listen to him, cosmologist or no cosmologist. The economist Tim Harford wrote in his column in Financial Times that Hawking’s genius and greatness were to include people like him and his teenage daughter in his quest. Anyone who’s curious about origin and destiny is on the same quest as Hawking’s.

T.C.

This article was originally published in No. 515, Newsletter in Apr 2018.

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Stephen Hawking physics cosmology science