Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

Front-page on every news source today is the sad report that Stephen Hawking died yesterday at the age of 76. For the best description of his scientific accomplishments, I recommend the obituary in the Guardian written by his sometime collaborator Roger Penrose.

I was going to write a little bit about one time I heard Hawking speak (or rather, his student interpret for us his speech), which was at the IAS back in the early 1980s. I just noticed though that evidently John Baez was at the same talk (he was an undergrad, I was a grad student), and describes it well here.

At the time I remember that many thought that quantum gravity would be understood within a few years, and that Hawking would not be able to live longer than another year or two, given the nature of the disease he was suffering from. It’s wonderful that the second of these turned out to be so wrong.

While Hawking was already a star in the physics community back then, his celebrity with the wider public came later. Of all the scientists who over the years have achieved some degree of celebrity, I can’t think of another one who so much both deserved and enjoyed the public attention.

Update: There are dozens of articles appearing discussing Hawking’s life and work. One you may not have seen which I enjoyed is from Nathan Myhrvold.

Update: Another piece by someone who worked with Hawking, Marika Taylor. It includes some discussion of his views on M-theory.

Update: Hawking has inspired some new theorizing from Niall Ferguson.

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13 Responses to Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

  1. Shantanu says:

    Peter, do you know of Hawking’s views on string theory, string wars, his impact on particle physics etc and whether he was aware of your book.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,

    I have no idea how much, given his condition, Hawking was able to stay informed about topics other than what was relevant to what he was working on (which would have been hard enough). So, no idea how much he knew about string theory and its wars, or particle physics. In later years his name appears as the author or co-author of dozens of books and I’ve always wondered how much he could have been involved in some of them.

    One I really disliked, The Grand Design, I wrote about here
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3141
    Much of it was the usual M-theory/multiverse propaganda and Hawking seems to have liked the use of this as a counter-argument to theological arguments from design. I have no idea to what degree Hawking was a well-informed enthusiast for the dubious science described in the book, or whether he might have been enlisted without knowing much about it.

  3. Azadi says:

    I was very sad to read about his passing in the news.

    What an inspirational person and a rare intellect to boot.

    He will leave a lasting legacy, I’m sure.

    I must say though, the Guardian newspaper’s “editorial” epitaph to him over here in the UK left a somewhat bitter aftertaste in my mouth,

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/14/the-guardian-view-on-stephen-hawking-the-mind-of-god

    “The death of a brilliant and complex scientist will mean we are all poorer because his mind will no longer roam the multiverses

    From his wheelchair, Hawking’s mind roamed the multiverses.”

    Roam the multiverses?

    A lifetime of extensive contributions to scientific theory and the media still homes in on “multiverses”.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Azadi,
    Unfortunately, as mentioned above, and see for instance here
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=347
    the Guardian’s epitaph was appropriate, since Hawking was a multiverse enthusiast, and as much involved in publicity for multiverse mania as anybody.

  5. Dave Miller says:

    I attended a talk Hawking gave at Caltech, one of his first presentations in the States on his work on black-hole evaporation, in the early ’70s: I’ve kept the handout of the draft of the paper given out to the audience (I pulled it out recently and found I still do not completely understand it).

    During the ’75-76 academic year, I had the chance to meet Hawking when I was taking GR from Kip Thorne; Kip arranged for us students to attend a seminar with a dozen or so participants that Hawking gave: I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut and just listen.

    I’m pleased to see that the media coverage I’ve seen so far is trying to avoid the usual “equal to Newton/Einstein” hype and instead focusing on the fact that Hawking was a truly brilliant physicist who showed extraordinary courage in dealing with a horrible disease.

    Courage is admirable, and the fact that the public rightly focuses on Hawking’s extraordinary courage says something good about the public.

    While it is sad that he is gone, the fact that he survived so long and achieved so much is truly uplifting.

  6. Justin says:

    The official account is that Hawking died after 12:00 am March 14. Your article posted on the 14th reading that he died yesterday. It is interesting that Hawking was born 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo and died on Albert Einstein’s birthday which was also coincidentally Pi day.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Justin,
    I saw the announcement before I went to sleep last night, a bit after midnight New York time, so his death must have happened yesterday (Tuesday) New York time. The Reuters news wire story
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-people-hawking/stephen-hawking-dies-at-the-age-of-76-press-association-idUSKCN1GQ0CX
    was at about midnight here, (4 am UK time) and says Tuesday, but perhaps they are using New York time. I guess Hawking died very early in the day on the 14th, and someone got the news out immediately.

  8. "i'd teach you but i'd have to charge" says:

    Hi Peter, did you see this?

    “Thomas Hertog, a physics professor who co-authored the paper with Hawking, said the paper aimed “to transform the idea of a multiverse into a testable scientific framework.””

    http://www.businessinsider.com/stephen-hawking-paper-from-just-before-he-died-could-find-new-universe-2018-3

  9. G. S. says:

    Peter,

    Thank you for posting the link to the Hawking obituary written by Roger Penrose. It was an honest assessment of Hawking, the man, and his contributions to physics and society.

    G.S.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    I wrote about Hawking-Hertog here
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=347
    It is based on the string landscape, has all the problems of that approach (especially, no real theory), and so hasn’t predicted anything and can’t ever predict anything.

  11. Anonyrat says:

    Via a Bee tweet:
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2018/03/18/stephen-hawking-leaves-behind-breathtaking-final-multiverse/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw
    Stephen Hawking’s ‘breathtaking’ final multiverse theory completed two weeks before he died

    Quote: “Currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal, the paper, named A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy.”

    Probably refers to this:
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1707.07702

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,

    “A final theory explaining how mankind might detect parallel universes was completed by Stephen Hawking shortly before he died, it has emerged.”

    It’s really depressing to see that people intent on dishonestly pushing multiverse hype would exploit Hawking’s death to engage in more of this. There’s nothing in that paper that solves the problem of finding a predictive multiverse theory, much less predicting anything based upon it.

  13. Mike Hall says:

    Bee has just blogged about Hawking-Hertog.

    Her title ‘Hawking’s “Final Theory” is not groundbreaking’. Much more sensible than the mainstream media reports (as one would expect).

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