A Star Has Extinguished: Personal Reflections on Stephen W. Hawking

Reflections on Hawking's death.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on March 18, 2018

$\pi$ Day, for me, is a day when I am happy. But, this year it was different. I woke up to a text from a friend saying Stephen Hawking is no more. I quickly looked at the news and confirmed that he was correct. It seemed as if, a very personal loss has occured. I had never met Professor Hawking, never have I ever been in the same city as he, but I could feel a tremendous pain at his demise. I am sure, this feeling was shared by so many others. Stephen William Hawking, touched many lives: as a scientist, he was the most well known physicist alive; as a science communicator he was unparalleled in capturing the public imagination; as a public spokesperson, he was a hero for all people with physical disabilities.  He donned several hats with equal composure and wit. His was a life made for the history books.

Many people, far more knowledgeable than I,  have written about him, and I cannot even attempt to add anything meaningful that has not already been said. So, I will just write down my personal reflections on the life of Professor Hawking and how he inspired a young boy in India, when there was very little inspiration in his life.  I do not remember when I first heard his name, but I remember the context. As for most of us, the first time I heard about Professor Hawking was through his book A Brief History of Time, I still remember reading my copy of his book with it’s iconic cover over my winter vacations when I was in school. It was the first time, I learned about space-time curvature, and tried to see it for myself by doing experiments with balls and sheets of clothes at home. That yellow covered book is still there in my bookshelf back home, but sadly, I have not gone back to give it another read. I did not understand everything that was written in that book at that time, but it inspired me to look into the big questions all around us.

I have several more books by Professor Hawking, some of which I have read in it’s entirety; some of which are too advanced for me, even with a basic understanding of mathematics of physics, right now. Professor Hawking, showed me a world, which I will never forgot, which I did not even know existed. His book made it clear to me, that mathematics was very essential if one wanted to know how nature works. At that time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but events happened which propelled me into mathematics. Nevertheless, the book was an eye opener, and it gave me courage and confidence that even I could try to resolve some mysteries of mathematics and nature. If a man, who was wheel chair bound could be the most famous living physicist, then why not anyone else aspire to emulate him.

Since school, I have had courses in special and general relativity, thermodynamics and my work is tangentially related to statistical physics; I now have a much better understanding of the science that Professor Hawking did, and can appreciate it for it’s own beauty. In the academic year 2014-15, I was a student at The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Our institute had a black board in the lobby, where the most famous equations from millenniums of physics knowledge were written down, and which no one erased, probably out of respect for these great men and women. Along with several other famous equations, formulated by giants of science like Sir Issac Newton, James Clark Maxwell and Albert Einstein, was the famous equation by Professor Hawking on black holes. I cannot even estimate the number of times I have stared into that board while sipping a cup of coffee. It felt very real, at that time, and even now. Professor Hawking was awarded the Dirac Medal by our institute several years earlier, and I can claim to have tread at least some steps that this great man had treaded.

Everything I have done so far, can be traced back to two incidents from my childhood. The first, I remember vividly my father reading out to me an article about Archimedes in an Assamese daily. It was the first time, I realized how powerful mathematics really was; imagine a man burning down numerous ships with a knowledge of how optics works and the geometry behind it. The second, was a person who told me that even I could be a scientist, when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I do not remember who that person was, but I remember him giving me a book about science and urging me to aspire to be a scientist. That was the first book I read, which mentioned black holes, Big Bang, and what not. To him, and to my father I owe more than anyone else for what I have become. These episodes propelled my interest in science, and that is how I came to know about Professor Hawking. I count him, Richard Feynman, S. Ramanujan and Evariste Galois to be my heroes. It is very sad for me, that I lost one of my heroes. His deficit in this world probably never be fulfilled.

It is also strange, how I vividly remember the opening of his book, he speaks about a lady who says that the earth is supported by turtles all the way down. Every time I see a turtle, I am reminded of that book and the many happy days I spent trying to understand it. Professor Hawking was a living legend, and my words will probably be lost in this sea of information. But, it is my humble tribute to the person who shaped some parts of our lives in some way, be it through his science, his compassion, or his tremendous ability to persevere. He will stay forever in the heart and the mind of that young boy who had to save a lot of money to buy his book; and also in the heart and mind of this person writing now, who knows and understands a tiny bit of what Professor Hawking did. Truly, a shining star has been extinguished from our lives.