Advanced science, Astrophysics, International, Technical

Stephen Hawking: The supernova of cosmology

In 1974, by predicting the apparently paradoxical concept of radiation emanating from black holes, Hawking reminded us that mass and energy are two sides of the same coin.


We humans are a recent phenomenon in the Universe that is very old, mostly imperceptible and beyond our comprehension. Had it not been for great scientists like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Karl Schwarzschild, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Stephen Hawking and many more who unlocked the enduring mysteries of the boundless Universe, it would have been a struggle for lesser mortals like us getting our bearings straightened about our place in the cosmos. Their ground-breaking work, forever, changed our view of the “heavens.”

Postulated in 1687, Newton’s law of gravity was a beautiful synthesis between terrestrial and celestial phenomenon, reaching across the vast expanse of the Universe. It allows us to study the waltzing motion of the planets, moons, stars and other objects in the sky with clockwork precision.

Einstein’s special relativity, published in 1905, tells us that time is not only elastic, it is also the fourth component of the spacetime fabric of the Universe. Ten years later, his general relativity redefined gravity as matter’s response to the curving of spacetime caused by surrounding massive objects.

In 1916, Schwarzschild found that the solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations characterized something that confounds common sense ‒ an unfathomable hole drilled in the superstructure of the Universe. Today, we call this voracious gravitational sinkhole a black hole, a single point of zero volume and infinite density.

Much to Einstein’s consternation, in 1929, Hubble discovered that the Universe is expanding in size. His “constant” enabled us to estimate the age of the Universe. In 1930, Chandrasekhar’s calculations indicated that when a massive star runs out of fuel, it would blow itself apart in a spectacular but violent explosion and then collapse into a black hole.

Black holes were discovered in 1971, when astronomers detected a hint of radio wave emissions coming from an object in the constellation Cygnus. The emissions were later interpreted as the fingerprint of the black hole Cygnus X-1. Since then, numerous black holes, including supermassive ones, have been detected in our own Galaxy ‒ The Milky Way, and elsewhere in the Universe. According to NASA, supermassive black holes are growing faster than the rate at which stars are being formed in their galaxies.

Cloaked behind the event horizon, which is not a physical barrier but just an information barrier, it must seem that there is no way of getting mass from the black hole back out into outer space. No way, that is, not until the British physicist Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the greatest minds in scientific history, joined the Big League of Cosmology in the mid-twentieth century. With his seminal contributions to the fields of astrophysics, general relativity, quantum gravity and black holes, he raised the field of cosmology from a niche topic to a well-developed subject in the forefront of science.

In 1974, by predicting the apparently paradoxical concept of radiation emanating from black holes, Hawking reminded us that mass and energy are two sides of the same coin. He was able to show that a black hole, like any other body whose temperature is not absolute zero, emits energy in the form of radiation, energy now known as Hawking Radiation.

The continual emission of radiation causes the black hole to shrink in mass. In other words, black holes “evaporate,” although the time it takes for a solar-mass black hole to evaporate completely is immensely long ‒ vastly larger than the age of the Universe, which is 13.7 billion years. The implications are nonetheless important ‒ even black holes evolve and die.

One of the Gordian knots of cosmology is the missing mass of the Universe. There is irrefutable evidence that visible matter accounts for only four percent of the Universe’s mass. The remaining 96 percent is invisible of which 73 percent is attributed to a pervasive “dark energy,” believed to be manifestation of an extremely powerful repulsive force that is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate. The additional 23 percent is thought to be dark matter whose origin obviously is the many black holes spread throughout the cosmos. However, their total mass does not add up to account for all the dark matter.

To address this issue, in 1971, Hawking advanced the idea that in the intergalactic space, there may be “mini” black holes with very small masses ‒ much smaller than the mass of the Earth ‒ yet numerous enough to account for most of the unaccounted dark matter. He hypothesized that they may have been formed during the first instants of chaos following the Big Bang when matter existed in a hot, soupy plasma. Since mini black holes have not been detected so far, Hawking lamented: “This is a pity, because if they had, I would have got a Nobel Prize.”

During the 1980s, Hawking devoted much of his time contributing to the theory of cosmic inflation ‒ the expansion of the Universe at an exponential pace before settling down to expand at a slower pace. In particular, he demonstrated how minuscule variations in the distribution of matter during this period of expansion, known as the Planck era, helped shape the spread of galaxies in the Universe.

As noted above, the core remnant of a high-mass star would eventually collapse all the way to a point ‒ a so-called singularity. Having said that, singularities are places where laws of physics break down. Consequently, some very strange things may occur near them. As suggested by Hawking, these strange things could be, for instance, gateway to other universes, or time travel, but none has been proved, and certainly none has been observed. These suggestions cause serious problems for many of our cherished laws of physics, including causality ‒ the idea that cause should precede the effect, which runs into immediate problem if time travel is possible ‒ and energy conservation, which is violated if matter can hop from one universe to another through a black hole.

While scientists know Hawking for his work on cosmology, millions of others know him because of his book “A Brief History of Time.” His lucid explanation of the mechanism leading to the creation of the Universe, our place in it, how we got there, where did space and time come from, and where we might be going made the notoriously difficult subject of cosmology more understandable to the layperson.
In a follow-up book titled “The Grand Design,” Hawking outlines his consuming quest for the long-dreamed-of “Theory of Everything,” the quantum theory of gravity. Such a theory would unify the two pillars of twentieth century physics, general relativity and quantum theory.

Known as the M-Theory (M stands for Mother-of-All), it would enable us to understand all phenomena in space-time, especially the first split second of cosmic creation, when everything was unimaginably small and densely packed.

Hawking was about as pure an atheist as one can be. He dismissed the existence of an omnipotent by noting that “regularities in the motion of astronomical bodies such as the sun, the moon, and the planets suggested that they were governed by fixed laws rather than being subjected to the arbitrary whims of gods and demons.” Nevertheless, in December 2016, he had a surprising but cordial encounter with Pope Francis at a convention on Big Bang in Rome.

Besides being a genius, Hawking’s celebrity status derives from his spunk in the face of physical adversity. Born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England, Hawking was diagnosed with a debilitating, incurable neuromuscular disorder, commonly known as motor neurone disease (MND), when he was just 21 years old. Although doctors predicted that he has only two more years to live, he lived another 55 years and died on 14 March, 2018. There are some interesting anecdotal coincidences. Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death and died on the 139th anniversary of Einstein’s birth. Following his cremation, his ashes will be interred on 15th June 2018 in Westminster Abbey’s nave, next to the grave of Isaac Newton and close to Charles Darwin.

Instead of ruing about his mortality, Hawking considered his illness as a blessing, allowing him, in his own words, “to focus more resolutely on what he could do with his life.” Indeed, with a crumpled, voiceless body ensconced in a wheelchair, he soared and established an exalted scientific reputation as the most recognizable scientist of the modern era. The name of this supernova of cosmology will be engraved in the sands of time as long as humanity lives.

The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York


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