The Straitjackets

Spring 2012


Essay:
Stephen Hawking
by
 Ed Seeberger

Stephen Hawking

                       

The two faces in the oil sketch above both  belong  to Stephen Hawking:  one [ictures him on his wedding day and the other about  forty-five years later. 
           
In 1963, Hawking, a cosmology student at Cambridge University, learned  that he had amyotrophic lateral  aslerosis  (ALS).   This rare disease kills the nerves that control the muscles.  Hawking was given only a ten percent chance of living more than another three years.
           
Hawking had been a bored and lazy student.  The shocking news woke him up.  “I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before,” he wrote.  He switched his studies to theoretical physics, believing  that his forthcoming disability would have less effect.  He also married and fathered three children.
           
By 1970, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair.  After 1974, he could no longer feed himself.  Despite these setbacks, he embarked on an intense period of productivity.

  •  In 1970, Hawking and Roger Penrose expanded Einstein’s theory of gravity to prove the existence of “black holes,” which are massive cortexes formed from collapsed stars.
  • The following year he devised the “Hawking area theorem,” further expanding the characteristics of black holes.
  • In 1974, he theorized that black holes emit heat, destroy everything sucked into them, and eventually vanish.  He later revised this theory to say that information from particles drawn into the holes can never be totally destroyed.
  • In 1982, Hawking proved that entire galaxies could result from miniscule variations in the distribution of matter, which grow as gravity causes them to cluster together.

Hawking contracted pneumonia in 1985.  Complications required that a tracheotomy be done.  This resulted in the total loss of his ability to speak.  For a while he could only communicate by raising an eyebrow when the correct letter was held up.  Fortunately, a computer expert in California (Walt Woltosz) read about him and devised a program whereby Hawking could pick words or phrases on a computer screen by a small movement of his hand or head.  A voice synthesizer was added and the program was improved.  Today he communicates by a sensor attached to his cheek which allows him to control a computer and “speak” (with an American accent) through a voice synthesizer.
           
Despite his deteriorating  condition, Hawking continued to study and work.   In 1988, he published “A Brief History of Time.”  This book is a brilliant effort to explain the complexities of the universe to laypersons.  It sold over twenty-five million copies and made Hawking famous.  He followed this book with five more.  In addition, he has published many scientific articles, lectures, and interviews, as well as children’s stories.  He has traveled extensively and become involved in a variety of causes including, like Einstein, the peace movement.

           
Stephen Hawking has done more than anyone to popularize physics and  make it accessible to non-scientists.  Some of his interesting ideas include:

  • Considering that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, each with its own planets, and that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, it is almost certain that intelligent life exists elsewhere. 
  • There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason.  Science will win because it works.
  • There is no heaven or afterlife.  Hell is for people “who are afraid of the dark.”
  • Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing;  why the universe exists; why we exist.
  • It is unlikely mankind can avoid a disaster in the next hundred years and beyond.  The only chance for survival is to spread out into space.

Hawking has devoted his greatest efforts in pursuit of a complete theory of the universe, a “theory of everything.”  He recently said that science was “making good progress” toward this goal.

Scientists from around the world gathered in Cambridge, England, on January 17, 2012, to celebrate Stephen’s seventieth birthday.  Perhaps Professor Seven Carip (UC Irvine) said it best:  “It is amazing  [his work] came from somebody with his condition but it is even more amazing  that it came from one person at all.”

 

                Ed Seeberger is a painter, writer, and reformed lawyer.  He has recently become a novice physicist due, in no small part, to the influence of Stephen Hawking.  He begs pardon for any misstatements and oversimplifications.                 

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