Yesterday, for some unexplained reason, I spent £6 on the latest issue of National Geographic – £4 of those should go to Prof. Stephen Hawking! Why? Because the main title cover is NEW VIEWS OF THE COSMOS and another smaller title is A BRIEF HISTORY OF LIFE. I conjecture this issue would sell much less if it was not for Hawking and his A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME.
This takes me back to a somewhat balmy winter evening in India. It was January 15th. 2001 and I and a friend ventured out of our Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi students hostel to go to a show by a rockstar. The rockstar was Stephen Hawking and those were the days when poor grad students could still buy tickets for such events!
Hawking was going to give a public lecture interestingly titled From Astrology to Blackholes at the Siri Fort auditorium which is not very far from IIT. When we reached the auditorium the queue was a mile long running around two blocks of buildings.
You would have thought that this was for a big bollywood star like Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan and not for a physicist the details of whose work are beyond many physicists let alone the general public. But such was the power of his outreach and the magic of his writing that he sparked the interest of a whole generation into this `exotic’ object called Black Hole, the origin of life and the universe and the determination and power of the human mind to overcome life debilitating disabilities.
When we finally managed to get in, the auditorium was packed to the rafters (As this news story from the past recounts – “We are thinking of putting up big screens outside the venue to allow more people to hear the lecture“). We were lucky to find seats but there were people sitting on the stairs and in the aisles including some we could recognise as well known media figures. My friend had sneaked in his father’s mechanical film camera and was setup to sneakily take pictures of the occassion.
At some point, the president of India K R Narayanan walked in and sat at the front. Then, it was time and prof. Hawking wheeled in to a rapturous reception.
As it was with him, he was there seemingly completely still and his robotic voice spoke as slides on the large screen went by. There was Hawking and the Simpsons cartoons on the screen and a number of funny anecdotes had the crowd literally and figuratively rolling in the aisles (remember the aisles were full too). This was till the physics began!!
A few minutes into the lecture, Prof. Hawking ventured into the cosmos, black holes and the present theories behind the structures and origins of our universe. For me, the lecture was absolutely fascinating and I went back with the same old question in my mind that why had I not become a cosmologist rather than the computer scientist I was becoming!
A curious phenomena however happened – what seemed like almost a third of (and seemingly mostly older) audience started drooping and occassionally snoring. In hind sight, this was not surprising and this will always be Hawking’s legacy – Who was more inspirational? Hawking the scientist or Hawking the man who in a life long battle with ALS kept ALS on the mat firmly with a wheel chair over its chest! Obviously, a number of the audience had come to pay homage to the strength of the human spirit.
Back in the student’s hostel, I gave a lecture on the lecture I had just heard to some fellow students, some of them physics students. That evening, it seemed that Cosmos had come to the table complete with black holes, branes and strings (If you didn’t get that refer to String theory)!
The point to remember is that this is the imagination that fires up brains and drives us towards knowledge and science. What we were not discussing was the mindbending rigour and extremely complex mathematics underlying Hawking’s work. He himself wrote in the introduction to A Brief History of Time that he put only one equation in the book (E=MC^2) since each additional equation would reduce the readership by half.
Probably the most beautiful example of his work (at least one which I understood a bit) was Hawking Radiation. Black holes are these extremely dense objects in the universe often found at the centre of galaxies that have such strong gravity that they devour everything including light itself. Black holes were thought to be absolutely black but Hawking showed they were gray!
Particle physics dictates that energy and matter is made up of particles and corresponding anti-particles coming together and breaking away in instantaneous time. Hawking thought about this phenomena at the edge of the black hole and came up with the brilliant theory that due to the extreme gravity, the edge of the black hole would leak the partner particle (or anti-particle) of the devoured anti-particle(particle) leading to what came to be known as the Hawking Radiation.
The only reason that Hawking Radiation (and other works of Hawking) has not won the Nobel prize for him is that the energy of the hawking radiation is calculated to be even lower than the background radiation around since the Big Bang and hence, so far, impossible to measure.
A few years later, I was fortunate to study in a class taught by the Nobel Laureate and inventor of quark Prof. Murray Gell Mann at University of New Mexico, and, if I remember correctly, he mentioned that the genius of Stephen Hawking was to apply particle physics and quantum mechanics to the field of Cosmology. Long live the scientist and superman Stephen Hawking!