January 17, 2001. The queues of people at Siri Fort reminded one of the lines of people waiting during the International Film Festivals for tickets to a steamy European film. In this case though, the profile of the crowd, about 4,000 in all, was different—students, bureaucrats, academics, a curious mix, perhaps both socialists and socialites, as also Delhi’s professional event-goers, the sort who go wherever everyone else is going. Members of the last species, of course, being the true marker of an event’s success. The cops at the gate wondered why there were so many people waiting to attend a lecture by someone who can’t speak and has to move around in a wheelchair. But for the waiting people, it was a chance of a lifetime. They were going to actually see and “hear” the living legend, Stephen Hawking.
Hawking was to deliver a public lecture on ‘Predicting the Future: From Astrology to Black Holes’. Maybe it was the “astrology” in the title, or the hype generated in the press before his talk…everything combined to ensure the auditorium overflowed. Never mind that most people in the audience confused his name with that of a popular pressure cooker! Like with every other event in this city, the bureaucratic and political set had wangled all the passes while school and college students, who really wanted to be there, had to be content with watching him over television.
They already called him “Einstein” in school. His parents were middle-class folks of a distinctively academic bent—both had been to Oxford. He was born in Oxford...it was January 8, 1942, so for the delivery, his mother had shifted there to escape the London Blitz. Young Stephen showed early signs of possessing an exceptional mind, especially in mathematics and physics. After a local private school in Hertfordshire (which he finished a year early) came a scholarship to Oxford for an undergraduate degree in maths and physics. The rigours of an Oxford degree were not particularly taxing for an astonishing mind like Hawking, and consequently he spent a lot of his three years doing the kinds of things any undergraduate does—taking part in sports, indulging in drunken brawls and being bored.
After Oxford, Hawking started his doctorate at Cambridge with the famous cosmologist, Dennis Sciama. This was when the first symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affects the nervous system, started appearing. The disease affects the motor neuron system leading to a creeping paralysis, with the patient gradually losing control over his muscles. Intriguingly (and very luckily for science), the memory and the thought process are unaffected.
Battling all odds, and refusing to sink into self-pity, Hawking finished his doctorate. The tremendous support provided by his fiancée Jane was invaluable there. Doctors had given him only two years to live; he not only outlived their predictions but got married, had three children and joined one of the Cambridge colleges as a Fellow! In 1979, he was appointed as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Three centuries earlier, Isaac Newton had held this chair and now Hawking had established himself as his intellectual heir.
Hawking’s work has focused on abstruse subjects like singularities, black holes and quantum cosmology. Black holes are among the strangest objects in the universe—objects so massive and dense that it was thought not even light could escape from their enormous gravity. In 1974, the scientific community was startled when Hawking showed the opposite was true: not only do black holes emit radiation, they continue to do so until they evaporate. His own renown radiated too: he collected, inter alia, Fellowship of the Royal Society, Einstein Prize, Wolf Prize and Gravity Research Foundation prize—a prize endowed by an American millionaire who thought anti-gravity could cure his gout!
Real stardom came with the publication in 1988 of A Brief History of Time, a popular account of his work. Not that Hawking was a newcomer to writing. He had already written one of the most authoritative monographs on cosmology. But writing for the lay reader is a totally different act of the imagination than describing your research to your peers. The book’s phenomenal success—it has sold almost 10 million copies worldwide and been translated into numerous languages—turned Hawking into a celebrity. Subsequently, he went on to write many popular books and also an autobiography, My Brief History.
As a person, Hawking had his share of frailties, as described by his first wife Jane (whom he divorced in 1990 to marry his personal assistant) in her book, Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen Hawking. She described Hawking as self-centred, maybe a trifle selfish human being, totally insensitive to the emotions and feelings of those who care for him. This week, that person’s brief history came to its last page.
(The writer teaches at the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, Delhi University)