Stephen Hawking wrote that the boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary. The same can certainly be said of his influence on our world. This goes far beyond his direct scientific legacy, his ground-breaking research into black holes. In the 1970s he predicted that black holes aren’t always strictly “black;” instead, under the right conditions they can “evaporate” away, a process known as Hawking radiation. In particular, minuscule subatomic beasties called primordial black holes were predicted by Hawking to have been associated with the birth of our universe, and observations of their tell-tale final explosions in a shower of gamma rays have been sought for many years.
But Hawking’s influence certainly transcends his equations and his scientific papers. In the mid-1980s, Hawking decided to tackle an equally difficult task, to pen a book on theoretical physics for a popular audience. The result, A Brief History of Time, sold more than 10 million copies, although he himself admitted that a significant number of copies were never read from start to finish.
Hawking’s ability to motivate the general public to attempt to understand the mind-bending marvel that is our universe is arguably his most important contribution to science. For as his readers struggled to understand singularities and boundary conditions, event horizons and virtual particles, even at this so-called nontechnical level, they were mirroring the very same process that scientists go through every single day as they strive to understand reality. In this way, Hawking made science “real” even while trying to describe the properties of so-called imaginary time.
It is unknown how many of the upcoming generation of scientists were encouraged to go into the field by Hawking’s popular-level books, documentaries, or appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, The Simpsons, or The Big Bang Theory. Among them could be a future Nobel Prize winner in Physics, the one major prize that eluded Hawking. But as he clearly demonstrated, one does not need a Nobel Prize to have an impact on the world of science, just as one does not have to be able-bodied. Despite losing his ability to walk, talk, or take care of his basic individual needs by the time he was in his early 40s, Stephen Hawking made an indelible impact on our world. It has been argued that it is precisely because of these challenges that he became so famous, as the public image of a brilliant mind seemingly trapped within an immobile body became burned into our collective consciousness. Hawking himself, however, preferred to consider his mind to be free, unfettered as it explored the cosmos using only his imagination and the power of mathematics.
We should never forget, however, that Hawking’s long life very publicly and honestly educated us all on what a cruel, cruel disease ALS is, and the very real challenges facing the differently-abled in our society (especially those without the resources available to the famed physicist). Having lost a cousin to this heartless ailment, it would be easy for me to ask why Hawking was able to survive for so long and not Dennis. Instead, I take comfort in Hawking’s five-decade-long delight in enthusiastically thumbing his nose at the grim reaper.
Although his computerized voice is forever silenced, Stephen Hawking finally knows the answer to life, the universe, and the theory of everything. His life path was not an easy one, but he accepted it with humor, courage, curiosity, and an unabashed gusto for life that we would all do well to emulate.
— Kristine Larsen
View Dr. Larsen’s contributions to the History Channel’s article on Hawking and listen to her live interview with a New Zealand radio show on Hawking’s life and legacy.