Cosmologist Stephen Hawking dies age 76 – Experts respond

World-renowned cosmologist and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking has died in the UK aged 76.

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr with Stephen Hawking. Photo supplied by Roy Kerr.

The Science Media Centre asked physicists and those who worked with him to respond to the news.

Roy Kerr, Canterbury Distinguished Professor, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Stephen Hawking. Such an Incredible strength of spirit and character.

I first met him when he was around 25. At that time he walked with difficulty and his diagnosis was poor and he was given  only  a few more years to live.

50 years later he was still working with help and retained his quirky sense of humour.

My wife and I had dinner with him at his home in May last year and came away marvelling at his sheer positivity.

He was never a victim.

His most notable contribution to science was the conjecture that black holes evaporate.

The world will miss Stephen Hawking and I am very sad to hear of his passing.”

Professor David Wiltshire, Theoretical Physicist, University of Canterbury, comments: 

“Stephen was the most courageous person I have known. He had to face his own mortality far, far longer than most of us. Today’s news could have easily happened decades ago. But Stephen had an uncanny ability of stubbornly defying expectations — in science as well as in life.

“Thirty-three years ago I was one of the students who took turns to keep him company in Addenbrookes Hospital. It was the time he came very close to death from pneumonia. We read Sherlock Holmes stories to him to keep his spirits up. That was just after he had lost his voice to a trachaeotomy. Every word had to be spelled by us pointing to letters on a board and watching his eye responses. It was frustrating and he was depressed. But as always, he hung on and never gave up.

Happily, shortly after that Stephen acquired his famous computer voice, giving voice to the sense of humour which had long entertained his colleagues. By the time the drafts of “Brief History of Time” were coming off the printer in the computer room where we typed up our research papers, Stephen was already famous — but not the yet the icon of popular culture he was to become. The computer voice enabled that: he reached a huge audience as a lecturer as well as a popular author. The rest is history.

“Stephen was a first-rate physicist who made fundamental contributions to the questions we are still grappling with at the absolute frontiers of human knowledge. What is the nature of space, time, energy and matter? How did the Universe originate and evolve? What happens when space and time end in black holes?

“These questions are challenging enough without the extra physical challenges that Stephen had to live with on account of his disability. No doubt the ever imminent nature of his own mortality sharpened the intensity with which Stephen sought answers to the big questions, discovering such gems as Hawking radiation on the way. For those of us who still live to struggle with the foundational questions, Stephen’s life was a gift and an inspiration.”

Dr Nicholas Rattenbury, Astrophysicist, University of Auckland, comments:

“I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time when I was still at high school. While many of the deeper implications of his work eluded me at the time, I remember being enthralled by the way he told the story of the Universe in an easy to follow, engaging manner. A Brief History had a profound effect on me as a young student of physics, and spurred me to learn more.

“The origin, structure and fate of the Universe, black holes, the fundamental building blocks of all matter, the nature of space and time, the extraordinary insights of quantum mechanics: all of these where the subjects of Hawking’s popular science writing. Heady stuff it was, but made accessible to the non-specialist reader. I’ve become accustomed to being in the company of brilliant thinkers, but I’m ever in awe of those who can explain deep concepts in simple language.”

Professor Matt Visser, Mathematician, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Stephen Hawking was an incredibly gifted theoretical physicist who spent much of his life fighting a debilitating and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease. Scientifically he is best known for the black hole singularity theorems of classical relativity, and for what is now known as Hawking radiation — a subtle quantum effect allowing black holes to very slowly evaporate.

“Classical black holes have been “seen” by astronomers — certainly the astronomers “see” things that are extremely cold, dark, and heavy — and at some stage you run out of reasonable alternatives. Quantum evaporation of general relativity black holes has not yet been seen; the numbers make the effect far too tiny for current astrophysical observations. (Unless we get lucky and a micro-black hole undergoes a final burst of quantum evaporation reasonably close by; but just not too close.) Experiments with analogue black holes, not using gravity itself but instead looking at quantum particles trapped by other means, are more promising.

“Stephen Hawking wrote approximately 800 scientific articles over his career, and has had a tremendous influence in high-energy physics (quantum field theory), classical and quantum gravity (general relativity), cosmology, and astrophysics. Stephen will be sadly missed by the broader scientific community.”

Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, The Australian National University, comments:

“As a graduate student at Cambridge, I was fortunate to have Stephen Hawking as a lecturer on gravitational physics and black holes. He tended to wheel around the low dais at the front of the room while he delivered his pre-recorded lecture and a graduate student wrote equations on the blackboard. One time he rolled too far and his wheelchair tipped over the edge, depositing him on the floor. While everyone rushed to pick him up and dust him off, he was busy tapping on his wheelchair keyboard. When the lecture re-started he announced, in that instantly recognisable voice, ‘I fell off the edge of the world’.

A few years later, as a junior research fellow at Kings College, I very nearly achieved scientific infamy by running Hawking over as he zoomed out of the college gates and almost under the wheels of my car. I hit the brakes but he kept going, and I was left contemplating what my career prospects would have been as ‘the one who killed Stephen Hawking’.

Hawking was a great scientist and an inspirational figure. The universe is better understood and more interesting because he was in it.”

Professor Peter Tuthill, Sydney Institute for Astronomy, The University of Sydney, comments:

“For myself and many scientists, I am sure this is one of those pieces of news that becomes a fiducial anchor point in the stream of memory: remember where you were when the news about Stephen Hawking broke?

As a young Australian student studying in Cambridge, of course he was already the biggest of the pantheon of superstars that made places like that so alluring, but I did not anticipate my first encounter with him would make national headlines in Britain. Riding home late on our bicycles, my mate crashed into Hawking’s wheelchair – which he drove around at some speed in those days and with no lights – on the quiet streets at the ‘backs’ of the river Cam. This put both of them in hospital, and my friend on the front pages for all the wrong reasons.

It was not until much later in my career after that I began to appreciate just why Hawking was such a titan in physics, but also more broadly in culture and modern society. While his contribution to deep questions in physics was profound, he also contributed to a wide array of extremely important contemporary debates and issues – things such as artificial intelligence, the building of a fair society, pitfalls and problems thrown up by disruptive technologies of tomorrow.

For a guy with such manifest physical challenges in life, it would be easy to expect them to live behind a screen of fame and to remain absorbed in the theoretical.

I always felt it a testament to luminosity of his intellect that he was so outwardly engaged in the world, and had such penetrating vision and passion for the wider concerns of society and ethics.”