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Stephen Hawking (1942–2018)

Stephen Hawking not only struggled to understand the universe, he sought to change the world.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking host press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot, a new space exploration initiative, at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. Bryan Bedder / Getty

In 1963 a 21-year-old man was ice skating with his mother when he fell and found himself unable to get up. He visited the doctor, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and told he had two years to live.

With the nerves that controlled his muscles shutting down, Stephen Hawking fell into a deep depression — even considering dropping his studies altogether. But within a year he had established a reputation for brilliance, challenging the work of prominent Yorkshire astronomer Fred Hoyle in a June 1964 lecture.

Hawking would go on to defy his diagnosis, living more than half a century beyond his life expectancy and becoming one of the most iconic scientists of all time. His work broke new ground in our understanding of black holes, expanded on Einstein’s theories about space-time, and set out a new theory of cosmology. In the duration of his life Stephen Hawking not only furthered our understanding of the universe, but increased public engagement with science and advocated powerfully for political change.

Scientific Career

Hawking was born in 1942 in Oxford, the Blitz having caused his family to relocate from London. Hawking’s parents, Frank and Isobel, were well-educated, meeting at Oxford University where he was studying medicine and she politics, philosophy, and economics. In his teens Stephen was recognized for his intelligence, in particular for his scientific aptitude. Like his parents he attended Oxford, studying natural sciences. Upon graduating in the early 1960s he decided to pursue cosmology, working as a doctoral student at Cambridge under the renowned Dennis Sciama. It was during his doctoral work that Hawking received his diagnosis of ALS. Two years later he published the first of his major cosmological results.

From 1965 onwards Hawking began a collaboration with Roger Penrose, Penrose having previously proved a so-called singularity theorem concerning black holes. Black holes are pathological objects that spring from Einstein’s equations of general relativity without being truly describable by them. They are regions where matter accumulates and, compressed under the force of its own gravity, collapses to create an area of infinite density. In this region gravity becomes so overwhelming that not even light can escape, a point where the equations break down. This point is the singularity that gives Penrose’s theorem its name. Hawking’s insight was to begin not with the singularity but with the present day, and to run the clock backwards. He started with a universe comprised of ordinary matter just like our own, and proved that this universe, all of its matter, space, and time, must have been at a singularity at some point in the past. This point in the past is known as the Big Bang, the moment the universe burst into existence was thus captured and written down on paper.

In the 1970s Hawking turned his attention to quantum mechanics, the study of matter at the smallest scales, orders of magnitude from the black holes he had worked on previously. As his reputation grew he became increasingly frail, and more reliant on his first wife Jane, whose support was crucial. He was unable even to turn the pages of a book without assistance, having to carry out the incredibly complex reasoning without so much as a pen and paper. In this period Hawking achieved what he considered to be his greatest work, deriving the equation he said he wanted carved on his gravestone. This work combined the two disparate camps of modern physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics, and in the words of one researcher “caused more sleepless nights among theoretical physicists than any paper in history.” The equation he derived predicted that black holes aren’t completely black, they very faintly glow. It had been thought that black holes were sinks into which matter and light fell and were destroyed. Hawking postulated that this is not the case, black holes must themselves radiate away energy and as such very slowly evaporate and vanish. This idea revolutionized our understanding of these mysterious objects, and is still a fruitful area of research today.

In the 1980s Hawking suffered a bout of pneumonia, resulting in a tracheotomy which left him reliant on a speech synthesizer. During his recovery he completed work on A Brief History of Time, the astoundingly successful book which made him a global scientific superstar. The image of Hawking, confined to his chair, determinedly communicating through his computer, became iconic in the popular imagination. He took up the seat, seemingly always occupied by the most esoteric mathematical physicists, of “Smartest Man Alive.”

Hawking’s scientific work addressed some of the most profound questions about the universe. For millennia questions have been asked and theories posed about the cosmos; how did it begin, how is it structured, how would it end? Even to modern ears these questions sound metaphysical, they feel more like Zen koans than lines of scientific inquiry. The word “universe” itself feels charged, something more than a technical descriptor. The universe is vast and the scale alone almost renders it incomprehensible. On a clear night the sky can seem dauntingly crowded with stars. How are we to make sense of this? How are we to begin thinking about it methodically, formulating sensible questions, let alone answering them?

These efforts began when the telescope extended our view into the cosmos. The first step fell to Copernicus and Galileo: the Earth was relegated from the center of the stage and the sun replaced it. Over the subsequent three centuries, as observational power increased, the solar system was placed into the context of the galaxy. At the beginning of the twentieth century the universe as we understand it now came into focus: billions of galaxies, each home to billions of stars. Not coincidentally it was at this time too that Einstein gave us the mathematical tools required to understand the universe at its largest scales. His theory of general relativity, published in 1915, did away with the idea of space and time as separate entities. They were conjoined into a single continuum, space-time, with which the objects in the universe interacted, giving rise to gravity. This theoretical framework was dramatically confirmed by experiment in 1919, and over the past century it has proved an accurate account of the universe in which we live. With this tool in hand, answers to grand questions were within striking distance. Is the universe finite or infinite? Is it flat or curved, shaped like a football or a saddle? Did it have a beginning, and what will become of it in the distant future? One of the great achievements of twentieth-century science was to make these questions concrete and quantifiable. Over the latter half of that century, few did as much as Hawking to provide answers.

Political Beliefs

Hawking’s fame, and his tremendous talent for communication in spite of his impediments, gave him a unique platform. Throughout his life he used this platform to popularize science but he never shied away from the political, a passion he inherited from his mother, who he described as a “free-thinking radical.”

A topic always close to his heart was the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). As a result of his condition Hawking was keenly aware of the value of health care, and the clear moral imperative that it be a universal right. He fought continuously against the encroaching commercial interests that would seek to privatize the NHS, and publicly lambasted the Tory government’s underfunding. In the last year alone he joined a doctors’ campaign to sue Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt over creeping privatization and engaged him in a public argument over NHS underfunding and the move towards a US-style insurance system. “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” he told the Guardian in 2009, “I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

Hawking had socialist sympathies from his earliest years, mostly inherited from his mother who took him on an Albermaston march against nuclear weapons at a young age. These ideas brought him to the Labour Party, who he vocally supported for many years. He maintained doubts about Jeremy Corbyn’s electability early in his leadership — acknowledging that his “heart was in the right place” but fearing he had been cast as a “left-wing extremist” —but put these aside to endorse the party in the 2017 general election.

His distance from Corbyn reflected his view that an “urgent change” was required in British government, having made dire warnings about the effects of cuts to science and research funding, particularly in the wake of Brexit. But, despite this, the two shared ground on many issues. Hawking was an early vocal critic of the Iraq War, reading the names of those who had died in a conflict he said was “based on lies” during a 2004 protest in Trafalgar Square. He also joined a 2007 campaign urging then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to scrap Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons scheme, remarking that “nuclear war remains the greatest danger to the survival of the human race.”

In his latter years, Stephen Hawking was also concerned with the effect technological development under capitalism might have on society. In a widely read 2015 Reddit AMA he responded to a query about automation by remarking:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

On the global stage, too, Hawking made added his voice to political causes. In 2013 he joined the academic boycott of Israel, making headlines when he declined an invitation to speak at a conference in Jerusalem hosted by then-Israeli president Shimon Peres. “Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel,” the country’s foreign ministry noted at the time. Prominent BDS campaigner Ali Abunimah agreed, “When we look back in a few years, Hawking’s decision to respect BDS may be seen as a turning point.”

To these causes, Hawking added years of advocacy for disability rights, addressing UNESCO’s From Exclusion to Empowerment conference in 2014 he said the “phenomenal technological support” he had received put an onus on him to speak on behalf of those who lacked it:

I have not been lucky to contract ALS, but I have been lucky to have this help. I want to use my high profile to raise awareness of issues around disability and communication. Recently, my communication system broke down for three days, and I was shocked by how powerless I felt. I want to speak up for people who live their whole lives in that state. My hope is that the kinds of technologies I have trialed and helped develop will become easily and cheaply available to all who need them. We need to make sure this technology becomes available to those who need it so that no one lives in silence.

Legacy

In the middle part of the last century the most prominent scientist in the world was unquestionably Einstein, and it is instructive to consider how he made use of position to further progressive politics. His 1949 essay “Why Socialism?” sets forward his beliefs in no uncertain terms. He spent a large portion of his time campaigning for nuclear disarmament and advocating absolute pacifism, he considered war in the era of nuclear weapons an unthinkable hazard. Like Einstein, Hawking frequently addressed what he considered to be existential issues. He too campaigned against war, and made frequent, urgent statements about the imminent threat of climate change. He recognized the dangers of concentrated wealth and power, particularly as technology threatened to make them still greater. Speaking ex cathedra as the “world’s greatest scientist,” these statements carried a great deal of weight.

However, being a great scientist does not necessitate good politics. It is worth remembering that among the most politically prominent scientists of the past twenty years have been members of the New Atheist movement: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and many others. Hawking himself was a vocal atheist throughout his life but was not affiliated with this movement, though he was similarly known for making broad statements of hubristic scientism, not least when he declared that “philosophy is dead” and has been replaced by science. Statements like these betray a somewhat close-minded view, and perhaps the most charitable opinion towards them was offered by his friend, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who concluded that Hawking “has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.” When Hawking spoke he received a great deal of attention, even when he spoke on topics about which he may not have had any specialist knowledge.

For the entirety of his life Stephen Hawking was engaged in some of the most abstruse and rarefied work possible. From the age of twenty-one he was faced with physical challenges that required an almost unimaginable amount of bravery and determination to overcome. He engaged himself in esoteric mathematics, creating intricate theories about the origins of the universe, the contents of black holes, and the nature of imaginary time. By this work he reshaped our understanding of the cosmos. In his personal life he was, by all accounts, witty, humble, and generous — as well as brash, arrogant, and a flawed father and husband. In the public domain Hawking created a persona which captured the global imagination; few, if any, scientists have achieved his status in popular culture. Hawking was a unique and a brilliant scientist, but remembering him solely as such does a disservice to his memory. In spite of his celebrity and the consuming abstraction of his work, Hawking never lost touch with the practical and the political. He spoke out frequently and with moral clarity, using his status to advocate forcefully for political change. More than struggling to understand the universe, he sought to change the world.