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Farewell, Professor Hawking

U of T remembers the renowned astrophysicist
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John Polanyi is pictured directly beside Stephen Hawking, who delivered a lecture at U of T in 1998. COURTESY OF JOHN POLANYI
John Polanyi is pictured directly beside Stephen Hawking, who delivered a lecture at U of T in 1998. COURTESY OF JOHN POLANYI

I first learned of Dr. Stephen Hawking from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode originally aired in 1993, this brief foray on screen saw Hawking playing poker with Einstein, Newton, and android Lieutenant Commander Data. Physics jokes were made, Hawking won the hand, and the cameo was over.

Given the endless index of extraordinary events that made up Hawking’s incredible life, which came to a sombre end this March 14, I could have easily chosen a more important event to begin this tribute, but I chose this memory because I remembered my precise childhood reaction to that scene: ‘I have no idea who this person is, but if he’s next to Einstein and Newton, he must be awesome.’

I strongly believe that that cameo will prove prophetic, and that Hawking will be remembered with the likes of Einstein and Newton.

An extraordinary mind, he made great strides working on the fundamental problem of physics: finding a unified theory to reconcile the vastly differing physics of the small, quantum mechanics, with the physics of the large, relativity. Along the way, he revolutionized astrophysics and cosmology with a plethora of theories, including the much-lauded Hawking radiation.

“Stephen combined Einstein’s general relativity of spacetime with quantum mechanics, two of the biggest developments in physics in the first half of the 20th century, to investigate the basic laws which govern the universe,” wrote Dr. AW Peet, a professor in the Department of Physics and a 25-year acquaintance of Hawking, in an email to The Varsity.

“He discovered Hawking Radiation, showing that black holes are not completely black: they can emit weak radiation and eventually evaporate completely. His Black Hole Information Paradox posed over forty years ago is still a very active field of research today,” continued Peet.

Dr. J. Richard Bond, a professor at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, also noted Hawking’s ubiquity in cosmology.

“Everything I have been working on lately on sabbatical at Stanford has had Hawking discussion arising about it: Hawking temperature, Gibbons-Hawking entropy, black hole evaporation, [and] wave function of the universe,” said Bond.

It is clear that Hawking’s brilliance cannot be overstated. Yet it wasn’t just his brilliance that netted his multiple television cameos, and it likewise is not only for his astrophysical acuity that the world mourns him today. Of equal measure to his mind was his incredible capacity to convey the most complex of ideas to a general audience in a humourous, straightforward, and engaging way.

“People whom I clearly recall coming up to me at cocktail parties to explain, with satisfaction, that they never could do chemistry, decided, instead, that their lives would be incomplete if they did not encounter Stephen Hawking. They were right,” said Nobel laureate Dr. John Polanyi, University Professor in U of T’s Department of Chemistry.

Polanyi made that statement 20 years ago, addressing a packed Convocation Hall, when Hawking came to visit U of T in April 1998. It carries no flippant embellishment.

With his popular science book A Brief History of Time selling more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988, it is no exaggeration to say that Hawking has inspired generations of scientists.

At one end of the spectrum are long-time physicists like Peet.

“I first met Stephen in 1992 when I was a baby Ph.D. student, at a dinner party of theoretical physicists at Stanford,” wrote Peet. “I was inspired to work on the research topics I investigate partly by his deep theoretical physics insights.”

Hawking’s following only grew in the twenty-first century, rousing another wave of young scientists to explore the universe.

“I remember reading A Brief History of Time during my days as an undergrad,” recalled Matt Young, a PhD student in the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Instead of coming across as a dry lecture, the book told the story of the universe and all its fascinating physics at a level that was accessible by everyone.”

Even after his death, Hawking’s mammoth influence in the field continues to generate enthusiasm in the next generation of physicists.

“I still have my own well-worn copy of A Brief History of Time on my bookshelf from days of old,” said second-year Physics and Philosophy student Patrick Fraser. “It was arguably that introduction to physics that inspired my own journey, hoping to one day be a physicist myself.”

Although a physicist and cosmologist, Hawking always sought to promote not just a single field, but the attitude and spirit of science in general. Having worked tirelessly in his promotion of rational thought and public involvement in research, it is not only students of physics who answered his call.

“[He was] truly an inspiration,” said second-year Electrical and Computer Engineering student Tobias Rozario. “A Brief History of Time helped develop my passion in physics and engineering.”

Second-year Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry student Matthew Gene expressed similar sentiments. “Stephen Hawking was an inspiration to all — not just in his work, but also in the way he lived. Despite being diagnosed with a terminal disease, Hawking fought on, continuing to be… one of the most recognisable public faces in science. As a student in the Life Sciences, it’s the resolve of men like Hawking that makes me dream of a better future for medicine and humanity.”

Yet among the multitude of thoughtful sentiments, there is one fact that remains to be mentioned: the inevitable image of Hawking speaking in the familiar programmed voice of his omnipresent wheelchair. Fraser succinctly addresses this elephant in the room.

“It is true that he was a great scientist despite his physical limitations. However, what many people perhaps fail to realize is that he was a great scientist, period,” said Fraser.

Although iconic, Hawking’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is not what society should focus on when remembering him. Instead, we should remember one of the greatest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who grappled with problems about the very underpinnings of the universe and left an academic legacy for the aeons.

We should remember a brilliant writer and unmistakable orator, who used his astonishing talent for communication to promote a better future for all of humankind.

We should remember, perhaps above all, an unbreakable human spirit, who once, in the words of Peet, “unexpectedly sped off down the steep driveway… for fun, with a huge grin on his face, enjoying the apparent consternation on the faces of non-disabled folks around him.”

Hawking — a Companion of Honour, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics — is an essential contradiction in the world. He was unable to physically perform and partake in so much that society fundamentally associates with humanity, yet one would be hard-pressed to find someone who lived a fuller life than Stephen Hawking.

“To have been on the leading edge of physics with such a disease over so many decades has to be one of the greatest triumphs of human will in the history of humankind. His life was a celebration of human spirit.”

— Dr. J. Richard Bond, Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics

“Always he insisted [that] mankind stop its pursuit of insane weaponry, hinting that our imaginations had become paralyzed. He will be remembered for centuries.”

— Dr. John Polanyi, Nobel Chemistry laureate, Department of Chemistry

“Stephen was a brilliant mind, a phenomenal researcher, a truly extraordinary scientist. He also had a magnificent sense of humour. For example, he once famously drove over Prince Charles’s foot while showing him some wheelchair tricks. Don’t refer to Stephen as “wheelchair bound” or “suffering from” ALS/motor neurone disease or other pity-based words to describe disability. His wheelchair and robot voice system didn’t constrain him – instead, they liberated him.”

— Dr. AW Peet, Department of Physics

“I think Stephen Hawking will be remembered with the likes of Newton [and] Einstein, people that revolutionised their fields and dedicated their lives to understanding the world around us. Much of [today’s] research on topics such as black holes is directly building on Hawking’s contribution to science.”

— Matt Young, PhD student, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

“The sheer magnitude of his accomplishments in the field was astounding, entirely irrespective of the difficulties of his daily life… In the history of science, [his] academic achievements have been matched by few… He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”

— Patrick Fraser, Physics and Philosophy specialist student

“His death caught me off guard. I never really expected him to die. Much like the Queen, I saw him as a staple of culture that just ‘exists.’”

— Daniel Wardzinski, Computer Science major, Mathematics and Philosophy double minor student

“He showed me that success comes from how you think and not what people think of you. I guess a lot of people measure how successful they are by how people look at them, but Hawking didn’t care about that.”

— Jenoshan Sivakumar, Astrophysics specialist student

“His collaborations with his daughter Lucy Hawking to write children’s books on space and science were incredibly influential on my childhood. They played a part in why I decided to learn physics.”

— Abhinav Bhargava, Physics and Philosophy specialist student

“Great scientists are rare, and great explainers are possibly even rarer. But in [A Brief History of Time], Stephen Hawking wrote about complicated concepts so well that they seemed almost intuitive.”

— Cameron Davies, Mathematics specialist, Ethics, Society, and Law major student

“Dr. Hawking was a genius and a pioneer in physics, but what was most inspiring about him was his pursuit of passion and of life in the face of adversity.”

— Hansen Jiang, Astrophysics specialist, Computer Science minor student

“It’s safe to say that Stephen Hawking is half the reason we’re here. He inspired an entire generation to look to the stars and imagine the unimaginable. To say he’ll be missed would be a drastic understatement.”

— U of T Astronomy & Space Exploration Society