Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking died on March 13 in his Cambridge, England home at the age of 76. Hawking became an iconic figure because of his scientific brilliance, his popular books, and sardonic wit. He also lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As physicist Michio Kaku, told the New York Times, “Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world.” Despite his stunning intelligence, one thing escaped the scientist.
His discovery on black holes shocked the world
Hawking’s most groundbreaking discovery changed the way physicists think about black holes and the universe. A turning point in modern physics came in 1973, when Hawking applied quantum theory to black holes. Previously, scientists believed that black holes were endless pits of nothingness. But after extensive calculations, he discovered that black holes do eventually fizzle, explode, and disappear. The discovery of “Hawking radiation,” or the particles that come out of the black holes, changed those cosmic forces as we know them.
Next: What did this discovery mean for science?
Hawking wanted this formula inscribed on his tombstone
Cosmologist Dennis W. Sciama called Hawking’s thesis “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.” The rest of the scientific community spent the next 40 years trying to understand what it means. Even Hawking said much of it still escaped him. He also wanted the formula for Hawking radiation inscribed on his tombstone, to memorialize the achievement.
“You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Hawking said in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it. On the other hand … neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.”
Next: His colleagues will miss his influence.
The scientist changed the way we think about the cosmos
“What a triumph his life has been,” said Martin Rees, a Cambridge University cosmologist, the astronomer royal of England, and Hawking’s longtime colleague. “His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.”
Next: Hawking did not limit his commentary to cosmic forces.
Hawking also warned against the dangers of climate change
The scientist told Wired he worried about President Donald Trump’s stance on climate change. While his worries on the subject predated Trump significantly, he also warned that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could exacerbate the problem.
Hawking told the BBC, “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence for climate change and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children.”
Next: He also wrote a letter to that effect.
In an open letter, scientists warned of this danger
In 2016, Hawking and 377 members of the National Academy of Sciences warned that climate change gravely threatened humanity. An open letter read, “Human-caused climate change is not a belief, a hoax, or a conspiracy. It is a physical reality.” The scientists went on to caution mankind about the risks of a Trump presidency. They explained that “it is of great concern that the Republican nominee for president has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord. … Such a decision would make it far more difficult to develop effective global strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change.”
Next: Hawking also disagreed with these potentially destructive advances.
Weapons of mass destruction could cause our downfall
With his knowledge of how matter behaves throughout space, Hawking possessed a unique position on weapons of mass destruction. He once warned that increased militarization could cause the downfall of the human race.
“There is no sign of conflict lessening, and the development of militarized technology and weapons of mass destruction could make that disastrous,” the physicist said. “The best hope for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space.”
Next: But this element of society scared Hawking most of all.
Trump’s popularity defied even his understanding
He once said the popularity of Trump rested beyond even his understanding. Asked if his knowledge of the universe meant Hawking could explain Trump’s popular appeal, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that he could not. “He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator,” the scientist said.
Hawkings and Trump held vastly different views on what makes a person intelligent. In 2004, a New York Times reporter asked Hawking what his IQ was. “I have no idea,” the physicist replied. “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
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