Remembering Stephen Hawking

Written by: Christoph Adami

Primary Source: Spherical Harmonics

The passing of the great physicist Stephen Hawking today at the age of 76 fills me with sadness for many different reasons. On the one hand, it was inspiring to witness that, seemingly, the power of will and intellect can hold such a serious illness at bay for so long. On the other hand, I am also sad that I never got to talk to him, and perhaps explain to him my take on his great body of work.

Young Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) Source: Wkimedia

I ran into Stephen several times when I was at Caltech (which Hawking visited regularly), but a situation never developed in which we could “chat”, as it were. One day in 1992 I was walking with Gerry Brown, a nuclear theorist who also visited Caltech each year in the Spring, together with Hans Bethe, Brown’s collaborator on the theory of binary neutron stars, along the lovely paths in Arcadia’s Arboretum.

Hans Bethe and Gerry Brown

Hans Bethe and Gerry Brown, at Caltech in 1992

From afar, both Gerry and I spotted Hawking being pushed by his nurse along the path. Realizing that our paths will cross, Gerry and I both tried to get Hans to stop and engage Hawking, imagining that Hawking would be delighted to meet the eminent Bethe, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his discovery of how stars generate the energy to shine.  However, Bethe curiously demurred. Later I asked Gerry why Hans did not take this opportunity, and he answered: “You’d be surprised how shy Hans can be.”

Hans passed away thirteen years ago, Gerry left us almost eight years later, and now Stephen is gone too. For me, it is always difficult to imagine that these great minds could simply cease to be. But after all, Hawking is known to have said “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail”, and in that he was surely correct. But of course, these great minds have left a legacy that is immortal, and we will keep them in our memory as long as we think about the stars, black holes, and the vastness of the universe.

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Dr. Adami is Professor for Microbiology and Molecular Genetics & Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. As a computational biologist, Dr. Adami’s main focus is Darwinian evolution, which he studies theoretically, experimentally, and computationally, at different levels of organization (from simple molecules to brains).

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