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His Legacy Lives On

Stephen Hawking’s legacy is for all ages. Stephen Hawking is gone, and the world is all the poorer. Stephen Hawking, a person who could speak with authority to the highest level of astrophysics, yet capture the imagination of generations of children worldwide.

What better way to capture this influence than to ask Junior School students what they loved most in science and to get the common answer: dinosaurs and black holes. What an extraordinary achievement to get into the curious minds of the young, the images of these immense black holes in space with their event horizons promulgating possible alternate universes. Yet it was nota science fiction story; it was his amazingly confident huge space knowledge. Hawking predicted the existence of Black holes. On December 10, 1974, Hawking made a bet with Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne over whether Cygnus X-1, a massive x-ray source in our galaxy, was a black hole. Both were fairly certain it was. But when push came to shove, Hawking bet against Cygnus X-1.

Hawking wrote in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time,

I have done a lot of work on black holes, and it would all be wasted if it turned out that black holes do not exist. But in that case, I would have the consolation of winning my bet, which would win me four years of the magazine Private Eye.’

Nowadays, the object Cygnus X-1 is widely accepted to be a black hole. What’s more, the discovery of gravitational waves in 2016 all but confirmed black holes’ existence. So the concept of these Black Holes was embedded into the imagination of new generations and into the Secondary science texts books trying to simplify what it all meant. Diagrams like this one became standard:

Yet how can we forget that Hawking was severely disabled? “That guy in the wheel chair” to quote Homer Simpson, himself famous as the most ordinary character in history. Hawking’s booming artifical voice was so mechanical and unsettling, his distorted facial features contorting to drive the voice machine. He was expected to die in his early 20’s after his prognosis of motor neurone disease yet he lived to a wonderful 76 years, famously taking every day as it came because it was a bonus to him. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, Despite all of these disabilities, he could attract an audience of thousands for any public lecture he would care to give, often via video link to packed auditoriums.

Today there are thousands of wonderfully successful scientists across the spectrum of topics but there are very few who stand out as so unique and so influential. Hawking, being British, was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (until he stepped down as required at age 67), an honour bestowed on some of the most influential academics, people who changed the thinking of generations, Isaac Newton, Charles Baddage, Paul Dirac to name a few. Stephen Hawking has gone and yet he stands a giant, on the shoulders of previous giants. May he rest in peace.

Greg Quinn
Assistant Dean of Learning
quinng@atc.qld.edu.au