PUNE: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all,” said world-renowned British physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, who died at the age 76 on Wednesday, was a terrifying combination of intellect with a mischievous sense of humour. These qualities not only made him popular in the academic world but also among the people world over. The news of his death has left the world of physics in mourning.
Hawking was known for his famous theory on the black hole and relativity. He was also suffering from a rare disease of motor neuron ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Poshak Gandhi, an Associate Professor at School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton, United Kingdoms said, “The news is very sad. Stephen Hawking embodied a courageous spirit and a great cosmologist.”
While sharing his experience, he said, “I was very lucky to attend several talks by him and also attend scientific discussions that he attended. This was during my time in Cambridge (I did a masters in Natural Sciences from 1997 and then a PhD in Astronomy).”
“My first memory is actually writing a postcard to him about merging black holes after reading his book ‘A Brief History of Time’ (that must have been around 1990). There is a famous anecdote about that book that many people bought it but few read it. Well, I actually read it, tried to understand it, and even wrote to Hawking a silly idea that I developed. I’m not sure that’s saying much, but he certainly fired up my imagination,” said Gandhi.
“He has done a lot for the field of black hole science, especially in trying to bring it to the public. One of his most remarkable predictions is that black holes (previously thought to be eternal graves of stars) eventually evaporate. This has huge consequences for quantum mechanics and cosmology. We are still far from being able to test these predictions using telescopes, but I hope that we will do so one day,” Gandhi added.
“He was definitely an inspiration in the way that he lived his life and he will be sorely missed by many in our field,” he added.
Somak Raychaudhury, Director Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), said, “I was in Cambridge for nearly seven years and he was one of the teachers at Cambridge but though our areas of research were different, students would often go to him and discuss various subjects.”
“Back then in 80’s and 90’s, he could move only one or two fingers and eyes. I attended many lecture series and course works conducted by him. In my first term as a PhD student in Cambridge, Professor Hawking gave a set of public lectures called “A short history of time”. More than 500 people attended these weekly lectures. You had to get there an hour before the start to get a seat,” Raychaudhury said.
“I still have my notes from those lectures and a printed copy was also circulated. Very few people knew Hawking then outside a tight circle of physicists and cosmologists and Cambridge academics. Those lectures turned into a book, with a slightly different title, which made Stephen Hawking a household name,” he added.
Much later, when I invited his daughter, author Lucy Hawking, to give a talk at my department at the University of Birmingham, I mentioned that I had met her at that time when she was a teenager, and about how so many young people had come to these lectures. Lucy talked about how important it was to her father to write for young people, from the time of his first book to the adventures of George, written together with his daughter,” Raychaudhury added.
His work still needs to be understood and analysis to be done which may come out with new nuances. He was an ambassador of Science, he added.
Sunil Mukhi, Physics professor, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research said, “He changed the very way of thinking about gravitation and gave new ideas to Alber Einstein’s theory. To this day, we are working on it and his theories are certainly correct. His work which is relevant even after 50 years is a remarkable thing. He was one person who always had a smile on his face and loved to interact with people.”
“When I was at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, we had hosted a conference in 2001, which Hawkings had attended. The six-day long conference showed us a different side of Hawkings who loved to interact with people and swirled his chair to the tunes of Bollywood songs. He had come with his wife and a few students and said that Indian physicists are doing very well,” Mukhi said.