Curious Nature: Theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking and the edge of the universe (column)
“The idea of 10 dimensions might sound exciting, but they would cause real problems if you forget where you parked your car” — Stephen Hawking, “The Grand Design.”
Theoretical physics, to the average citizen, may seem just as out of reach as the far edges of the universe. Despite this, Stephen Hawking had a talent for bringing both down to Earth in easy handfuls for the masses.
While many of us may ponder the origins of the universe, fewer dedicate their entire lives to the study of it. Hawking worked in the field of cosmology, a discipline studying the origin and development of the universe, and specifically investigated the basic laws that govern our universe.
At the age of 20, Hawking, armed with a degree in physics from University College in Oxford, started his study of cosmology with the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Just three years later, in 1965, he had earned a Ph.D. through his research examining the consequences of the expansion of the universe. From there, Hawking’s career seemed to expand in a fashion not unlike the big bang itself.
Some of Hawking’s most famous work involved both the origin and destination of space and time, with beginnings in the big bang and endings in black holes. A mathematical mastermind, Hawking married Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, two subjects that are hard enough for the layperson to understand on their own, much less when unified.
This work led Hawking to discover that black holes are not entirely black, as had once been thought, but actually emit a specific type of radiation, which would later be coined Hawking radiation.
Beyond his skills and discoveries in the realms of theoretical physics and cosmology, Hawking also had the ability take these complicated subjects and make them accessible to the masses. With books and lectures structured to reach those both inside and outside the scientific community, Hawking has helped many wrap their heads around the mind-blowing concepts behind the laws governing our universe.
Even theoretical physicists like to have fun sometimes, and Hawking was no exception. Hawking was always public about his disbelief in the possibilities of time travel, and at one point, he even devised an “experiment” to prove its futility. His experiment involved hosting a party for time travelers, preparing the venue with food and champagne, and then waiting for his guests to arrive.
The test, however, was that he didn’t tell anyone or send out invitations until after the party had ended, which any capable time traveler would have discovered and then traveled back so as not to miss their chance to mingle with Hawking. A Discovery Channel video shows Hawking waiting in an empty room as his honored guests fail to arrive, lamenting, “What a shame, I was hoping a future Miss Universe was going to step through the door.”
At the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS. While his condition meant that he completed most of his work from a wheelchair with a computerized voice system, it did nothing to slow down his brain. Despite a diagnosis that predicted he would only live to 23, the world was gifted with 76 years of Hawking’s brilliance and wit before he passed away on March 14 of this year.
Haley Baker is a backcountry interpretive guide at Walking Mountains Science Center. Despite being raised by a physics teacher, she still struggled to understand most of the concepts involved in this article and admits now she should have paid more attention in his physics class. Happy birthday, Dad.