Faculty and researchers gathered to remember the life and work of renowned English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking at a commemorative event hosted by Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative Tuesday.
Hawking, who died last Wednesday at the age of 76, is best known for his theoretical prediction that black holes are not completely “black” but in fact emit radiation, in addition to other breakthroughs towards unifying quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. At the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—a rare motor neurone disease—and given a two-year life expectancy. While the disease gradually paralyzed him, Hawking defied doctors’ expectations, continuing his scientific career for decades.
Malcolm J. Perry, a math and theoretical physics professor at the University of Cambridge and Hawking’s former graduate student, was the event’s featured speaker. Perry shared his experiences working alongside Hawking and Harvard Physics professor Andrew E. Strominger to formulate a theory describing what happens to information when it enters a black hole.
In his remarks, Perry detailed Hawking’s professional career, beginning with his undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford. Perry recounted the legend of an ambitious, young Hawking giving an ultimatum to his embattled advisors: award him a first-class degree, in which case he would go to Cambridge for his graduate studies; give him a second-class degree, and he would remain at Oxford—ostensibly to the vexation of his teachers.
“They gave him a first [class degree], thereby making the worst mistake they’ve ever made,” Perry said, to laughter from the audience.
Before a backdrop of photos taken throughout Hawking’s life, which included Hawking with his Oxford boating club and with astronauts in a zero-gravity plane, Perry shared a litany of amusing anecdotes from Hawking’s career.
“While he was a great ambassador for science, he also wanted to do other things and live a full life,” Perry said. “The idea that he had motor neurone disease was not going to deter him from doing other things.”
Strominger emphasized Hawking’s commitment to his work during their collaborations.
“His most salient feature to me is just his passion for physics,” Strominger said. “I also have a passion for this subject, and when you have a shared passion like that with somebody, it creates a sort of bond.”
“To have a partner on that voyage to understand things—of course there were other people that I’ve also shared this with—but it was a special pleasure with Stephen,” he added.
Astronomy Department Chair and Black Hole Initiative Director Abraham “Avi” Loeb, who also spoke at Tuesday's event, remarked on Hawking’s scientific and personal legacies.
“He demonstrated the superiority of the mind over matter, in two ways. One, he was able to overcome the physical disability. But he also understood, at the deepest level, the secrets of nature,” Loeb said in an interview. “In terms of day-to-day life, he basically tried to ignore, as much as possible, his disability. And that’s quite remarkable.”
Loeb said he first met Hawking thirty years ago, when he was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in Israel. Many years later, he encountered Hawking again at an event hosted by the Royal Society in London, where he invited the theoretical physicist to inaugurate the Black Hole Initiative in April 2016.
Despite his fame, Hawking “never spoke as a celebrity” during his visit to Harvard, according to Loeb.
“He really was a very straightforward kind of person—sincere and truthful and willing to speak with anyone at a down-to-earth level,” Loeb said. “For example, after one of the events, he told his caretakers, ‘Why don’t we go to the bar at the hotel and have some drinks? We still have a little more time.’”
Strominger also recalled Hawking’s dynamic personality.
“He was also very mischievous. He was a lot of fun—he liked to surprise people, upset people, do things spontaneously,” Strominger said.
Loeb said Hawking’s work—despite his disability—reflected his larger attitude toward life.
“Black holes are supposed to trap everything—there is no way for anything to escape from a black hole in principle,” Loeb said. “But, in reality, he discovered that light can escape black holes, and they eventually evaporate. So even the ultimate prison is not really a prison.”
—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.
—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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