Professor Stephen Hawking: a tribute

Professor Stephen Hawking

Members of the University’s Institute of the Cosmology and Gravitation pay tribute to Physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, who died this morning.

Professor David Wands
Director, Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

“Stephen Hawking was one of the great scientists of our time. He had the ambition and the ability to tackle fundamental questions about gravity and quantum mechanics, their role in black holes and the origin of the universe. He realised that black holes can emit radiation, which we now call Hawking radiation, which eventually leads them to evaporate. He also discovered that the same quantum effect in the very early universe can lead to small fluctuations in the density of the hot thermal plasma, a fraction of a second after the big bang, and this could lead to all the structures that we observe in the cosmos around us, galaxies, stars and, ultimately planets and people.

“He was a huge inspiration to me personally when I was a student at Cambridge. At the time he was just writing the first draft of his book “A Brief History of Time” and he gave a series of lectures for undergraduates. The lectures were optional, not part of any exam, but we turned out in droves to hear him speak. Sitting on the steps in the lecture theatre to hear the words of the great man. He was already a celebrity in Cambridge but he soon became a global phenomenon.

“I was also lucky enough to attend several scientific meetings which Hawking organised in Cambridge, where many of the world’s leading scientists would gather to present their work argue about science and enjoy Stephen’s hospitality. Last year he celebrated his 75th birthday with a series of talks, but also a reception back at his house where he opened his home to scientists from around the world.”

Professor Claudia Maraston
Professor of Astrophysics

“When I was awarded the Eddington medal for theoretical astrophysics this year, my immediate thoughts went to Stephen, the real symbol of such an award. Stephen got the Eddington medal for his studies on black holes in 1975, when I was a little girl. This feeling of sharing the award with such an eminent scientist and a symbol of my generation gave me a feeling of infinite professional accomplishment and internal peace.

“I have admired Stephen since I was a teenager, also because of his condition. His work showed to me the infinite power of mind and strong will. We should also remember Stephen for this.

“When I was approaching the end of grammar school, I could not decide whether to study literature and history, or astrophysics. My mother gave me his book ‘A Brief History of Time’ as a present and I read it over a weekend – I decided.”

Dr Marco Bruni
Reader in Cosmology and Gravitation

“This is sad news for ICG, for astrophysics and cosmology, and physics as a whole! Stephen Hawking was the second PhD student of Dennis Sciama (our building is named after him), following George Ellis, my supervisor and that of Roy Maartens, and was mentored by Roger Penrose. Together with Penrose, Hawking developed a new understanding of singularities in General Relativity: in essence, the generality and unavoidability of a Big Bang in any cosmology within General Relativity is due to their theorems. With Ellis, Penrose, Martin Rees and other Sciama students, Hawking promoted a renaissance of General Relativity and its application in astrophysics. With Ellis, Hawking wrote what became one of the most influential books on General Relativity, ‘The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time’.

“But the work that really promoted Hawking to stardom among physicists at large is his study of black hole evaporation, or simply Hawking evaporation, a phenomenon where he was the first to marry quantum mechanics and gravity, at least in this specific context. Hawking evaporation is today studied even in lab experiments, thanks to “analog gravity”, the use of other physical systems, such as sound waves in a moving fluid, to model general relativity phenomena. Later, he became famous within the public at large with his book ‘A brief history of time’.

“Hawking has been, and always will be, an inspiring scientist, not only for his imagination, but also for his resilience in pursuing a scientific career despite his illness.”

Professor Bob Nichol
Director, Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Professor Nichol was interviewed by BBC Radio Solent about his memories of Professor Stephen Hawking. Listen to the interview here.

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