On March 14th, 2018, the world lost one its most innovative and forward-thinking minds: Dr. Stephen Hawking. The famed physicist was known for his ability to translate complex theoretical concepts into layman’s terms, as well as for his perseverance in the face of degenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Here’s a look at the Stephen Hawking legacy: His work on understanding the beginnings of the universe, the behavior of black holes and what might exist beyond infinity.
Like most stories in modern physics, this one starts with Einstein. Specifically, Hawking studied Einstein’s notion of singularities. General relativity suggests the existence of these singularities — also known as black holes — occur when massive objects, such as stars, collapse under their own weight and curve spacetime so severely that even light can’t escape, according to the BBC.
In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer wrote a paper describing these singularities, but his ideas were disregarded because most physicists found them at odds with classical notions of universal laws. In 1959, Hawking entered the picture, coauthoring a paper with Roger Penrose on the black hole theory that not only bolstered the evidence for singularities but also argued that the much-debated Big Bang theory of the universe was correct: Our universe began as a kind of black hole in reverse, starting from an immeasurably small singularity and exploding outward. The paper gained critical acclaim, lent credence to the Big Bang theory and furthered Hawking’s exploration of the black hole theory, said the BBC.
Back to Black
Hawking’s greatest contributions to physics vary depending on who you ask. Query an average person on the street and chances are they know exactly who you’re talking about — the scientist in the wheelchair who wrote “that book.” That book is “A Brief History of Time,” published in 1988 and immensely popular among anyone curious about the beginnings of the universe and the potential for universal laws. According to the International Business Times, despite its status as a best-seller, readers only finish approximately 7 percent of the book.
Among the scientific community, meanwhile, understanding the Stephen Hawking legacy starts with two words: Hawking radiation. As noted by Vox, Hawking’s work on black holes confirmed that nothing — not even light — could escape being pulled into the gravity vortex. But he also realized that just like everything else in the universe, black holes must also increase in entropy over time.
Entropy implies temperature, which means black holes had to be “losing” something that would generate heat. By combining the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, Hawking proposed that particle and antiparticle pairs pop up continually in black holes, canceling one another out and splitting apart while also detracting from the black hole’s mass, according to Vox.
While Hawking radiation has not yet been detected, the general scientific community has accepted this theory.
Stephen Hawking’s Legacy
In addition to his brilliant theories, Hawking leaves behind new questions for the next generation of scientists.
As noted by Gizmodo, Hawking’s most recent paper,”A Smooth Exit From Inflation,” states that while the expansion rate of our universe suggests the existence of a “multiverse” where other universes and alternate physical laws are possible, the possibilities aren’t infinite. Instead, they’re governed by mathematical laws and could potentially be detected in the background radiation of our universe.
Not surprisingly, both of these theories have drawn praise, criticism and even more questions. That’s the true Stephen Hawking legacy: The intersection of science-for-the-people and revolutionary theory to provoke discussion of — as one of Hawking’s favorite authors succinctly put it — “life, the universe and everything.”
This article was originally published on March 29, 2018.