How physicists will remember Stephen Hawking

Researchers are still pondering puzzles posed by the cosmologist

Stephen Hawking

COSMOLOGICAL STAR  During a career that spanned more than half a century, Stephen Hawking deduced new properties of mysterious chasms in spacetime.

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Stephen Hawking, a black hole whisperer who divined the secrets of the universe’s most inscrutable objects, left a legacy of cosmological puzzles sparked by his work, and inspired a generation of scientists who grew up reading his books.

Upon Hawking’s death on March 14 at age 76, his most famous discovery — that black holes aren’t entirely black, but emit faint radiation — was still fueling debate.

Hawking “really, really cared about the truth, and trying to find it,” says physicist Andrew Strominger of Harvard University, who collaborated with the famed scientist. Hawking “was deeply committed, his whole life, to this quest of understanding more about the physical universe around us.”

After earning his Ph.D. in 1965 at the University of Cambridge, Hawking continued studying cosmology there for the rest of his life. Due to a degenerative illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Hawking gradually lost control of his body, requiring a wheelchair and eventually a voice synthesizer to speak. Yet his desire to uncover nature’s secrets remained boundless.

In one of the most significant realizations of his career, Hawking reported in 1974 that black holes emit a faint glow of particles. This effect arises from quantum mechanics, which states that a sea of transient particles and antiparticles pervades all of space. These “virtual” particles usually annihilate in an instant, but if one of those particles is lost inside a black hole’s boundary, or event horizon, its partner can escape, producing what’s now known as Hawking radiation (SN: 5/31/14, p. 16).

As a result, black holes can gradually evaporate and disappear. This led to a still unresolved paradox: Throw an encyclopedia into a black hole and the information will eventually be lost. But according to quantum mechanics, information can never be destroyed.

Many solutions have been proposed for this problem, but none has stuck. In 2016, Hawking and colleagues proposed a path toward a solution: Black holes might have “soft hair,” low-energy particles that would retain information about what fell inside (SN: 2/06/16, p. 16). Hawking’s collaborators, including Strominger, are still working on the research. Standing at the interface between two seemingly incompatible theories — quantum mechanics, which describes the very small, and the general theory of relativity, which describes gravity — the quandary and its resolution may eventually help reveal a unified theory of quantum gravity.

Hawking made many other contributions, including studies of spacetime curvature during the Big Bang and the possibility that mini black holes might have formed in the universe’s infancy. Despite their groundbreaking nature, Hawking’s ideas remained largely theoretical, says Harvard theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb. Hawking radiation, for example, has never been directly detected. “That’s, unfortunately, why he didn’t get the Nobel Prize,” Loeb says.

Yet Hawking achieved a level of fame uncommon among scientists. He excelled at making abstruse science digestible to the public. With his books, most notably the best-selling A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988, Hawking inspired countless future scientists and science lovers (including the author of this article). Theoretical cosmologist Katie Mack of North Carolina State University in Raleigh first opened the book when she was about 10 years old. “I found it so fascinating at the time,” she says. “I found out that Stephen Hawking was called a cosmologist and so I said I wanted to be a cosmologist.” Hawking similarly motivated dozens of her colleagues, Mack says.

Hawking remained active in research even in the last months of his life. A paper on which he is a coauthor, which was updated in the weeks before his death, considered the physics of multiverses, the possibility that a slew of other universes exist in addition to our own.

A funeral was held for Hawking on March 31. Later this year, his ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey in London, where they will rest alongside the remains of other famous British scientists, including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this piece appeared on on March 14, 2018.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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