Professor Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, had a combination of skills arguably unparalleled in his lifetime. Not only was his work in theoretical physics truly exceptional, but few matched his ability to communicate complicated ideas and engage the general public.
Hawking’s work encompassed ideas that are simultaneously fundamental and yet difficult to describe concisely. With the risk – indeed the certainty – of oversimplifying, the work included:
- helping develop the idea that black hole shrink and eventually vanish (emitting radiation as they do), overturning previous beliefs that black holes will infinitely swallow up matter and expand;
- exploring the links between general relativity and quantum physics, two fields of science that literally couldn’t be further apart in scale; and
- proposing ideas about how these links imply laws that explain the entire evolution of the universe.
Yet Hawking’s life would be less remarkable were it solely for his scientific achievements: he never won a Nobel prize and is rarely featured in lists of the greatest physicists during his era. Instead he compounded his research and theorizing with public communication.
As well as making countless media appearances and television shows, he wrote or co-wrote a dozen books, most notably 1988’s A Brief History Of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies. It was widely praised for its clear and engaging approach for a non-scientific audience.
That’s very much a comparative description however. It’s often been joked that the book took over from James Joyce’s Ulysses as the most read but least finished. A 2014 study analyzing the highlight feature on Kindles put it in second-last place in an estimate of how far people read into a selection of popular titles.
It’s a measure of his achievements that Hawking’s 50-plus year battle with motor neurone disease was not the most notable part of his life. While his near-total paralysis and reliance on a voice synthesiser were the most obvious effects, several of his peers have today noted the almost unbelievable mental capacity he required to explore his ideas without the ability to easily write down calculations and formulae.
Hawking died peacefully at home early today. In announcing the news, his children recalled him saying that “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”