They call him the master of the Universe. Stephen Hawking,
Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the Cambridge University, and the world’s
most eminent living cosmologist, is already one of the immortals of science.
Long recognized by his peers as a pre-eminent mathematician and cosmologist, he
has now become the best known interpreter of time and space since Einstien.
His book “A Brief History of Time”, has sold millions of
copies worldwide, in numbers beginning to rival Euclid, the geometry texts which
to this day are the all-time market leaders among scientific books.
As a further embellishment, Hawking took up his job, the
Lucasian Professorship at Cambridge, 310 years after the great Sir Isaac Newton
was appointed to the same post in 1669.
Today Hawking has emerged as one of the most thrusting and
profound exponents of cosmology, prolific in his output of teaching and ideas.
Yet he has done this in the most difficult of circumstances. For 30 years he has
suffered from the wasting disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis---motor neuron
disease, as it is better known---outliving his doctor’s prognoses by decades.
He is now reduced to virtual immobility and since a
tracheotomy in 1985 can communicate only by voice synthesizers and printouts
from a finger-operated computer. Movement is achieved by similar controls on a
technically sophisticated wheelchair.
Inevitably, communication is difficult and limited in
speed. Hawking compensates by long hours of work and a phenomenal memory. He is
capable of carrying whole series of equations in his head, manipulating them and
then delivering them with such explanation as is necessary. Musicians and
mathematicians seem to share this faculty, a combination of visual retention and
reasoning, which has often been reported among the leaders of these
professions---Mozart being another well known example.
Stephen Hawking was born, the son of a medical
practitioner, in north London on 8 January 1942---the 300th anniversary of the
death of Galileo near Florence. At the age of 10 he was sent to school at St.
Albian, the cathedral city to the north of London, where he seemed to be the
archetypal hare-brained young scientist. He was in no sense an infant prodigy,
but showed consistent mathematical insight through school and into his
undergraduate studies at the University College, Oxford.
From there he went to Cambridge as a postgraduate and it
was there that two major influences in his life emerged: he married and his
illness was diagnosed. The strength and support of his family life (he is the
father of three children) greatly assisted not only in his survival but also in
the glittering career which then developed. Hawking spent ten years in various
research posts at Cambridge, reaching the academic position of Reader in
Gravitational Physics in 1975, one step in the British system below full
professor, which he achieved two years later, and the prestigious Lucasian
Professorship in another two years.
Even before this he was elected to the fellowship of the
Royal Society, Britain’s highest scientific attainment, at the early age of 32.
He was made a Companion of Honour, one of Britain’s most prestigious cultural
accolades, in 1989. At home and aboard he was awarded a spate of honorary
degrees, commendations and medals which ranged from the Albert Einstien Medal
from the Albert Einstien Society in Berne, and the Pius XI Medal from the
Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to a garland of American distinctions from the
Princeton and the California Institute of Technology.
These honours were supported by a ceaseless flow of
publications including the Einstien centenary survey on general relativity,
works on superspace and supergravity, the early universe, and the large-scale
structure of space-time. The culmination of these productions was “A Brief
History of Time”, published in 1988, which transferred him almost instantly from
the position of a scientist distinguished among scientists to a leading figure
on the world scene. Not only is the book selling in astronomical numbers, but it
has generated two biographies and a film, directed by Steven Spielberg, for
which Hawking has written a new popular book.
Scientists are frequently portrayed by snapshot quotations
and, recently, Professor Hawking was reported as denying the possibility of time
travel, not even through ‘wormholes’”, minute black holes dotted through space.
The major theme which Hawking has pursued is to seek to reconcile the lopsided
manner in which the development and decay of the universe seems to have taken
Einstien, supported by almost every subsequent
observation, encouraged the concept of the ‘Big Bang’ theory of creation. An
enormous explosion created the system of galaxies and other systems which we
constantly observe. Unfortunately, having been set off in an ordered manner, the
universe then proceeds in a steadily increasing system of disorder. The question
is why something which begin with a bang long ago should end with a whimper
Hawking is seeking to reconcile Einstien’s relativity
concerned with gravity and other ‘big’ phenomena, with the quantum theory which
deals with small particles and contains the ‘uncertainty principle’, arguing
that the more precise the measurements attempted, the less precise it is likely
Part of the answer lies in the concept of three arrows of
time, the direction in which time is seen to be passing. First there is the
thermodynamic arrow, the direction in which the universal disorder is
increasing. Second is the physiological arrow in which we pass from the past
towards the future. Finally, there comes the cosmological arrow in which the
universe is expanding rather than contracting. The argument is that the first
two arrows are interdependent and point in the same direction. Reassuringly, so
is the third, since the universe is currently expanding. This inflation implies
that it will be a very long time before the universe recollapses, with the stars
burning out their constituent heavy particles converting to light particles and
radiation. This will come at the state of maximum disorder; there will be no
direction of increasing disorder and the thermodynamic time arrow will
disappear. The party will be over.
Coming back to our earth, Hawking is guardedly optimistic
and as long ago as 1984, foresaw the possibility of a unifying theory with a
reasonable chance of being revealed by the end of the century. Even so he is
cautious about its applications. He warns against the assumption that such a
theory would enable us to predict everything in the universe: “Our powers of
prediction would be severely limited, “he wrote, “first by the uncertainty
principle which states that certain quantities cannot be exactly
predicted....and secondly, and even more importantly, by the complexity of the
equations, which makes them impossible to solve in any but very simple
solutions. Thus we would still be a long way from omniscience.” LPS.