Stephen Hawking is famous for three, or perhaps four, key reasons:
He wrote A Brief History of Time
He is an outstanding theoretical cosmologist, though Hawking himself rejects the claim of being the world’s best
He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a type of motor neuron disease. As the illness has progressed, it has left him with no voice (he speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer) and confined to a wheelchair.
And the fourth reason?
He fits the media’s stereotype of the disabled savant, and/or mad professor.
Hawking, who will be 60 years old in January 2002, has authored many hundreds of publications, most of which are academic papers. His more accessible publications include the following:
The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime with George Ellis,
General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey, with Werner Israel,
300 Years of Gravity, also with Werner Israel
In addition, he has published three books aimed primarily at the lay person:
Hawking is one of the world’s leading theoretical cosmologists. His work is at the edge of advanced mathematics, and yet he has condensed much of this immensely complex theory into a form which is accessible—just—to the lay person.
His most famous book, A Brief History of Time (ABHoT), exemplifies this approach. Toward the end of the book, he introduces the subject of quantum gravity. This one of the most difficult and complex theoretical ideas currently being investigated by the world’s heavyweight mathematicians. Nevertheless, Hawking has the courage to tackle it head-on. His prose is not straightforward, "In a quantum theory of gravity … in order to specify the states of the universe one would still have to say how the possible histories of the universe would behave at the boundary of space-time in the past."
It is hard to imagine how one can give a credible treatment of this topic without using such complex language. However, it has to be said that the mere fact that he dares to introduce such advanced ideas to the public has given Hawking a reputation for being a ‘difficult’ author.
This reputation is not helped by Hawking’s use of large blocks of text with few paragraph breaks and even fewer illustrations. Where Hawking does use diagrams, they are clear, if somewhat poorly drafted. Each of them contributes significantly to the reader’s ability to grasp the difficult topics Hawking is introducing.
With Hawking, then, perseverance is rewarded. It might take a number of re-reads, with each chapter taken in small chunks, and careful attention paid to the diagrams, but with effort, the lay reader can learn some of the fundamental secrets of the universe from Hawking’s books. Those who already have some familiarity with multi-dimensional geometries, or quantum theory are more likely to follow the arguments to their conclusions, but even such privileged students will not take in every detail at first read-through. For those who can absorb Hawking’s ideas, the books do offer a clear insight into the generalised structure of the universe, its history, and likely future. They also offer some ideas about how modern cosmologists think.
The books—perhaps like Hawking himself—are relentlessly scientific in their nature, with only passing references to the emotion and awe in which most of the lay population hold the stars and the heavens. Hawking allows for nothing in his books except the knowable and the known. Even when something is by definition unknowable—such as the singularity at the heart of a black hole—Hawking chooses to try and describe it in terms of its mathematical properties and the way it affects its local environment, in a totally mathematical sense.
Hawking and his fellow cosmologists are on the brink of revealing the true nature of the universe. They are filling in the holes in our human understanding of the universe around us, leaving less room for any conventional world-building God. Thanks to Hawking and his colleagues, we now know the path of cosmological development from the beginning of time, to the very end. We also know that questions about what happened before time are meaningless. To this extent, Hawking and the other elite cosmologists have re-shaped human thought, removing the need for a God to create the universe, and leaving us free to either believe—or not—in a personal God who influences our emotions, choices and beliefs. The scientists have nothing to say—as yet—about life, love and the power of friendship.
A short biography
Most of the following academic biography has been adapted from his own website, www.hawking.org.uk
Professor Stephen William Hawking CH, CBE, FRS was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England. He likes to point out that this was the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo. He was educated first at St Albans School, and then University College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first class honours degree in Natural Science after, "not very much work," according to Hawking’s own write-up.
Hawking wanted to do research on cosmology and applied to Cambridge, hoping to work under Sir Fred Hoyle, but was instead allocated to Denis Sciama at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. Hawking won his Ph.D with ease and subsequently gained a post as Professorial Fellow at his college, Gonville and Caius.
Hawking moved from the Institute of Astronomy to the Cambridge University Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1973, and in 1979 was appointed to the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He is especially proud of the links which take this position back to Sir Isaac Newton.
Hawking’s work revolves around the most fundamental laws of physics and cosmology, and he has collaborated with many of the greatest minds of this generation. In particular Hawking was the first to show that black holes do emit mass and radiation. Another fundamental discovery, with Roger Penrose, was that space and time must have started in the Big Bang and are likely to end in black holes. One of the results of this effort was to show that a proper theory of the universe requires a reconciliation of the two most fundamental foundations of modern physics: Quantum Theory and General Relativity. This search for a valid quantum gravity theory remains one of the great intellectual struggles of the 21st century.
Hawking was awarded the CBE in 1982, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1989. He has twelve honorary degrees and is the recipient of many awards, medals and prizes and is a Fellow of The Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has been confined to a wheelchair since his mid-20s, and accepted his admission into the Royal Society from the wheelchair.
Copyright notice: The above biographical text has been substantially re-written and edited but still contains a few of Hawking's own phrases--compare it with the original text at the URL given. Full references and credits have been cited. It thus falls into fair use exceptions.
Oh yeah, when writing it, I wrote to Hawking to check a couple of facts. Got a reply and a 'go-ahead' on the text as well. I guess that adds up to 'permission'.