An Indian Astrophysicist’s Brief History With Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking was not just a personal hero, he was also a professional blessing to many Indian physicists.
It was a beautiful sunny day in Cambridge, and as I was rushing hastily to attend a talk when I saw the much-talked-about wheelchair and the legendary man speeding through the university lane around DAMTP (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge). It was none other than the great Prof Stephen Hawking. This was my first glimpse of him in real life.
On another occasion, I mustered some courage and told him, “It is a great honour to meet you, sir. I have read your books with great interest and like them a lot,” to which he replied with a polite ‘thank you’ in his unique voice.
Little did I know that this would be my last meeting with the legendary Hawking. It is a sad day for the entire science fraternity in the world that Prof Hawking has left behind in the mortal world; the only comfort being in the thought that he might catch up directly with god in the celestial world to continue his sublime calculations about the universe.
His life and work almost had a Hollywood film-style mystery and beauty to it. For people like me, it is almost unthinkable to imagine that a person with such a grave amount of disability could accomplish such levels of excellence in scientific research.
Stephen Hawking was a true fighter, and only tried to find the positives in his physical condition. Professor Hawking even said once that disability keeps him more occupied and focused in comparison to his boring and monotonous life before. Such was his attitude when dealing with personal hardships.
One has to keep in mind that Hawking was only able to speak with a voice synthesiser following a tracheotomy, but that never stopped him from doing top-class scientific research, or speaking at conferences, or even writing on popular science. His classic work A Brief History of Time was a game changer in the genre of popular science writing.
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A Brief History For All Times
I still remember the excitement of reading this classic when I was a school kid, aged 15 or so. It was a truly mesmerising experience, and inspired students like me and countless others to learn more about physics and research.
During my BSc Physics days, I remember re-reading the book and having the same level of excitement and wonder that I had before. This is the true hallmark of a great writer. His writing style was so simple and lucid that it was accessible and digestible to both professional scientists as well as the general audience.
As a science scholar, I also enjoyed the BBC’s Horizon series, featuring him and his inspiring work. He was a truly gifted communicator of science.
I found his intellectual debates on the differences and similarities between quantum mechanics and general theory of relativity with eminent physicist Roger Penrose truly fascinating, because of their resemblance to the famous historical debates of the same nature between quantum mechanics guru Niels Bohr and relativity doyen Albert Einstein.
Hawking’s Indian Brethren
Stephen Hawking was unique in his immense contribution to diverse areas of physics like quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics, astrophysics and so on. According to astrophysicists like myself, one of his landmark contributions was the Hawking’s radiation, which is about how black holes evaporate and disappear by radiating particles and antiparticles.
This is also one the areas which overlaps beautifully with the Nobel prize winning Indian astrophysicist S Chandrasekhar’s work on critical mass (which is presently called ‘Chandrasekhar limit’) of stars and how they evolve into black holes.
Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose were instrumental in envisaging and visualising the intricate aspects of black hole formation and geometry regarding event horizon, singularity points and their topological aspects.
They were instrumental in verifying and appreciating the ‘Raychaudhuri Equation’ (dealing with space-time singularities concerning black hole-like events) which was an illustrious contribution in Einstein’s general theory from the great Indian physicist Prof Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri.
For a long time, he occupied the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge, which was once occupied by scientific luminaries like Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac. For scientists like me, this is as distinguished as it can get; because for most of us achieving even one percent of what these all time greats have done is simply a far fetched dream.
Hawking has always been considered as a pristine genius and a revolutionary brand ambassador of science, research, logic and reasoning. Even as the science community and the whole world mourn the stalwart’s departure to the real celestial world, his unparalleled legacy and spirit live on.
(The author, Dr Aswin Sekhar, is an Indian astrophysicist presently working at Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway. This views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same )
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