Professor Stephen Hawking is the closest thing physics has to a rock god (honorable mention to Neil deGrasse Tyson). Despite suffering from a motor neuron disease related to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the dude has appeared on “The Big Bang Theory,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons.” There are members of the Screen Actors Guild who don’t have a resume like that.
Hawking’s life is now the basis of the film “The Theory of Everything,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, but not one person in a thousand could string together three cogent sentences about his work. Here’s your chance to be that one in a thousand as I share some of the things that make Hawking the Belle of the Brainiac Ball.
Singularities and The Big Bang: While working on Einstein’s theory of gravity, physicists realized that it allowed for points where space-time (existence, if you will) is infinitely curved. Roger Penrose of Birkbeck College, London University, proved that these singularities would form black holes — places where matter is so dense that not even light can escape its gravitational hold. In 1970, Hawking and Penrose applied this to the entire universe and discovered that Einstein’s theory predicting a singularity at the beginning of the universe. Hence, The Big Bang.
Mechanics of Black Holes: Having figured out the origin of the universe, Hawking took up the workings of black holes during 1971-72. For instance, he demonstrated that the surface area of a black hole cannot get any smaller, as defined by classical (but not quantum) physics. This implies that black holes are hot, which contradicted classical physics. The heat is known as Hawking radiation. Separately, he worked out that black holes can be described by their mass, angular momentum and charge.
Vanishing Black Holes: In 1974-74, Hawking built on his idea that black holes radiate heat, and he demonstrated that eventually black holes vanish. For “normal” black holes, it takes billions of years, and so, probably hasn’t happened yet. Smaller black holes (those with less mass), though, take less time, and when they vanish, they release huge amounts of heat — on the order of one million megatons of TNT.
Creation of Galaxies: When the Big Bang occurred, many physicists believe the universe underwent incredibly rapid expansion, inflation as it’s known. In 1982, Hawking and others showed that fluctuations at the quantum level in the distribution of the newly created matter could lead to the creation of galaxies. Small initial differences resulted in the structure of the cosmos. Cosmologists mapping the universe now show the background afterglow of the Big Bang that show exactly the kind of fluctuations Hawking predicted.
Wave Function of the Universe: In 1983, Hawking and Jim Hartle at Chicago University came up with this gem that simply disturbs the bejesus out of me. The Hartle-Hawking state says there is no boundary to the universe, that it is infinitely infinite. Imagine you are a two-dimensional being on the surface of the Earth (that is, there is no up or down for you). You can walk forever and never come to the end. Moreover, you can’t talk about what there was before the Big Bang because time itself was created in the Big Bang; there isn’t a “before.” Because that is so unsettling, I’ll spare you his work on M-theory, which says basically that there are many more dimensions than the four (height, width, length and time) that we experience.
Well, if Hawking’s so damn smart, where’s his Nobel Prize? The Nobel goes to discoveries/inventions, not theoretical work. If someone found a black hole actually emitting Hawking radiation, then he’d get one.
Face it, he’s smarter than we are.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.