15 March, 2018
“We have lost one of the most brilliant scientists of our time, a unique ambassador for the spirit of strength in adversity, creativity and passion for knowledge. His achievements received numerous recognitions, among them the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award. His vitality, sense of humor and unflagging determination to expand our understanding of the universe made him a source of inspiration and an example to us all,” in the words of BBVA Foundation President Francisco González.
“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” Professor Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert, and Tim said in a statement carried by Britain’s Press Association. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”
Hawking was born in Oxford, United Kingdom, in 1942, on the exact day of the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo Galilei. He originally wanted to study mathematics, but as the degree was not available in the late 1950s at University College Oxford, where his parents had studied, he enrolled instead in natural sciences, going on to specialize in physics.
At the time a far from brilliant student, in order to achieve his goal of studying cosmology he had to take an oral exam to offset his lackluster results in the written tests. In 1962, he enrolled at the University of Cambridge, drawn by the presence of Fred Hoyle – pioneer of modern cosmology and leader of the camp contrary to the Big Bang theory, an expression he had coined in a spirit of gentle mockery.
One year later, he was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, and doctors gave him no more than two years to live. Hawking, however, pressed on with his research, eventually becoming one of the world’s most renowned theoretical physicists.
Scientist and communicator
Aged 24, he won the Adam Prize, awarded by the Mathematics Faculty at Cambridge, for his study “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” and at the age of 32 was elected to membership of the Royal Society. That same year he began his research into black holes, postulating that after the Big Bang tiny black holes were formed, and that these primitive black holes emitted what would become known as Hawking radiation.
In 1979, he took up the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at Cambridge, founded in 1663 with Isaac Newton as its second incumbent. He remained there until retiring from the post in 2009, when he became Director of Research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. Hawking would also become one of the great popularizers of astrophysics, as the author of best-selling books like A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, and later The Universe in a Nutshell and The Great Design.
Frontiers awardee for discovering the origins of the first galaxies
The jury deciding the Basic Sciences category in the eighth edition of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards distinguished Hawking and Mukhanov for “discovering that the galaxies were formed from quantum fluctuations”; a discovery which they said “may be regarded as the single most significant experimentally confirmed achievement that brings together fundamental theoretical particle physics and cosmology.”
“Ideas about cosmology have greatly changed in the last 60 years. At the beginning of this century it was accepted without question that the Universe was essentially uniform and static. […] Most people preferred to believe that the Universe had existed for ever, because this avoided awkward questions about the initial data and about what happened before the beginning.” These words were written by Hawking in 1982 in the introduction to the proceedings of a workshop he co-organized that year in Nuffield, United Kingdom, which was attended by some of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.
The great change in cosmology that he was referring to was the consolidation of the Big Bang model: a new discovery had shown that once everything had been compressed into a dense, hot, microscopic speck, which at some point began expanding. Although this seemed incontrovertible, several non-trivial issues remained to be solved – hence the calling of the Nuffield workshop. One such issue was the origin of the galaxies, concretely how and why had all that matter begun to accumulate?
In Nuffield, Hawking put his own prediction on the table: a phenomenon termed quantum fluctuations, envisioned in quantum physics, was responsible for generating the “seeds” of matter in the newborn Universe that would eventually grow into the galaxies. One year earlier, another two physicists, the Russians Viatcheslav Mukhanov and Gennady Chibisov, had reached the same conclusion by another route. Back then no one believed that the existence of quantum fluctuations could ever be confirmed. But in the late 1990s, not long after Mukhanov, Chibisov (who died in 2008) and Hawking came up with their predictions, successive generations of sensitive, sophisticated telescopes began gathering the data the theorists were crying out for, and which would finally validate the theory.
The “intellectual rigor” of science
On receiving his Frontiers Award from the hands of BBVA Foundation President Francisco González, Professor Hawking expressed his satisfaction at sharing it with Mukhanov, adding that “this is the first recognition bestowed on me for my work on galaxy formation.”
During their encounter at Cambridge University, Francisco González inquired about Hawking’s views on the role of science and technology. “Scientific research is checked for consistency with experimental and observational data. And we need more intellectual rigor like this in public life to help us with global challenges,” the physicist replied. “There are big questions which must be answered and this will also need a new generation interested, engaged, and with an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever growing population, provide clean water, generate renewable energy and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement the solutions.”