Some of the biggest names in science took part in a special public event yesterday to celebrate the life and work of Stephen Hawking, on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics.
The event, on the theme of Gravity and Black Holes and organised by the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology where Professor Hawking is based, featured public lectures from Professors Brian Cox, Gabriela González, Martin Rees and Professor Hawking himself. Many of Professor Hawking’s current and former students and colleagues were in attendance to celebrate his life and career in science.
Professor Cox, from CERN and the University of Manchester, is well-known for his popular science series on the BBC, including Wonders of the Universe. He spoke of Professor Hawking’s great contributions to the public understanding of physics, and how he was inspired by Hawking’s 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time as a teenager.
“Physics challenges us to think very carefully about our place in the Universe,” he said during his lecture on Our Place in the Universe. And echoing another great science communicator, the physicist Richard Feynman, he said, “The most valuable thing about science is not what it teaches us about nature, or the spin-off technologies, it’s a state of mind. The state of mind is that not knowing is a powerful thing.”
Professor González from Louisiana State University is a former spokesperson for LIGO, and updated the conference on the latest research at LIGO, which announced the first detection of gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime – in early 2016. Since then, there have been two more detections. She outlined a planned network of gravitational wave detectors, which would allow scientists to detect gravitational waves with ever-greater precision.
In his lecture From Mars to the Multiverse, Professor Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor in Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, discussed the likelihood of finding life on other planets, and of the eternal allure of outer space. “It’s a dangerous illusion to think that space offers a solution to Earth’s problems – we’ve got to solve them right here,” he said. “We are stewards at an incredibly important time in the Earth’s history.”
In his lecture, Professor Hawking reflected on his life and career, and discussed his current research. He talked about when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was a PhD student at Cambridge, and was give just two years to live.
“At first I became depressed. There didn’t seem any point in finishing my PhD, because I didn’t know if I’d be alive long enough to finish it,” he said. “But after my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus, and I began to appreciate everything I did have. Where there is life, there is hope.”
Professor Hawking also discussed his academic work, which broke new ground on the basic laws which govern the universe, including the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. At the same time, he also sought to explain many of these complex scientific ideas to a wider audience through popular books, most notably his bestseller A Brief History of Time.
“I thought I might make a modest amount, to help support my children at school, and help with the rising costs of my care,” he said. “But the main reason is I enjoyed it. I think it’s important for scientists to explain their work, especially in cosmology. I never expected A Brief History of Time to do as well as it did. Not everyone may have finished it, or understood everything they read. But at least they would have gotten the idea that we live in a Universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand.
“It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution. Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you just don’t give up.”