Cambridge, England, Mar 15, 2018 / 09:27 am
The death of Stephen Hawking this week prompted a leading Catholic scientist to reflect on the life of the famed physicist, including his “astonishing” contributions to physics and his lifelong atheism.
“He was of course a very great physicist and one of the greatest physicists of his generation,” Stephen M. Barr, a particle physics and cosmology researcher who is a professor at the University of Delaware, told CNA. “He made several major contributions to the understanding of gravity and the big bang and the black holes that will be remembered as long as physics is known.”
Hawking, a Cambridge University physicist, passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 76. Author of the bestselling 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” he became a symbol of science in pop culture, appearing on shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons.”
In 1963, as a 21-year-old graduate student, Hawking he learned that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors expected him to live only a few years.
Hawking far outlived his prognosis, though over decades the disease gradually limited his ability to move, eventually to the point where he could only flex one finger and make eye movements. By the 1980s, computer technology had progressed to the point where he could communicate through a computer and voice synthesizer—though with an American accent.
Barr reflected on Hawking’s success despite his poor health.
“It’s amazing that he was able to do physics at such a high level when for example, most of us write on blackboards and do calculations on pieces of paper. We can hardly imagine being able to do our work when we can’t do those basic things,” he said. “It’s astonishing. It’s simply astonishing. A lot of what he did, he did in his head.”
Hawking’s work developed several key insights, including calculations which appear to show that black holes, the densest objects in the known universe, do in fact emit energy – energy now known as Hawking radiation. Previously nothing was believed to escape the black hole’s intense gravity. Hawking’s intellectual process involved an unprecedented application of quantum mechanics to gravity.