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Why I'm grateful to Stephen Hawking

One light may have gone out. But the lights Stephen Hawking lit burn on.Professor Hawking, perhaps the world'...

Posted: Mar 15, 2018 11:06 PM

One light may have gone out. But the lights Stephen Hawking lit burn on.

Professor Hawking, perhaps the world's most recognizable face of science, has died. Hawking's birth and death occurred on auspicious dates. March 14, the day he died, was the 139th anniversary of Albert Einstein's birth, and he was born on January 8,1942, the 300th anniversary of the death of renowned astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that paralyzes the patient. When he received his diagnosis in 1963, doctors believed he had only two years to live. Defying all odds, he outlived that prediction by more than 50 years. And he put those 50 years to good use.

Hawking did not allow the paralysis of his body to cripple his nimble brain. Confined to a wheelchair, he spent his time in thought. While it would have been entirely understandable for him to sink into deep depression, instead he turned his mind to one of the thorniest problems of modern physics.

In 1915, Einstein invented the theory of general relativity, which describes the nature of gravity under extreme conditions. It predicts black holes -- places where gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. A few years later, a coterie of physicists invented quantum mechanics, a theoretical framework that explained the world of atoms and even smaller objects.

When researchers tried to combine these two subjects to understand the theory of gravity in the microcosm, they failed entirely. And that has been the state of affairs for the last century. Quantum gravity is still an unsolved problem.

Hawking's doctoral work showed Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted that the universe began in a singularity, which meant the energy and matter of the entire universe was concentrated in a single point. But he knew this result neglected the effects of quantum mechanics, which meant it was not the final word on the subject.

But it did point to the fact that studying black holes would be a fruitful way to learn about the birth of the universe. So, he spent the remainder of his scientific career investigating these cosmic conundrums.

His most influential work explored the nature of entropy in the vicinity of black holes. Entropy is a measure of disorder and there is a principle of physics that says that entropy (e.g. disorder) must increase. Yet matter falling into a black hole seemed to decrease disorder. Following a chain of thought proposed by a younger physics student by the name of Jacob Bekenstein, Hawking determined a relationship between the surface area of the outside of a black hole and the disorder.

Combining these insights led him to understand that black holes actually had a temperature. Since anything with a temperature radiates energy, this means that black holes radiate energy. This was impossible using just Einstein's equations, but when Hawking included the principles of quantum mechanics, he showed that black holes could indeed radiate energy. This energy is now called Hawking radiation. While it has not been experimentally confirmed, it is generally conceded to be true by working physicists.

Hawking's scientific work resulted in him being awarded the Lucasian Chair at the University of Cambridge, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking's scientific accomplishments are exemplary.

However, it is his contribution to society that made his greatest impact. Hawking was the most recognizable scientific face on the planet. His book "A Brief History of Time," written for nonscientists, has sold more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988. He has appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "The Simpsons," and "The Big Bang Theory." He has published many other books with great success. It's been said that Hawking could publish his grocery list and it would be avidly read by his many fans.

If I might indulge in a personal anecdote: Hawking was one of many who inspired me to write my own books on science for the public (albeit with fewer copies sold). On one of his visits to Fermilab, we were able to speak very briefly. He had published "A Brief History of Time" and I congratulated him on its success and expressed an interest in writing myself. He encouraged me to try and the result was that several years later I published my first book. Several books later, I am still grateful for that encouragement.

Stephen Hawking influenced a generation of science enthusiasts for over three decades. Through his cordial relationship with the media, he motivated and inspired people to study the great questions and to think about the unsolved mysteries that stand before us. It is up to those of us who have followed in his footsteps to carry the torch and share his infectious enthusiasm for learning about the world around us.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 343505

Reported Deaths: 7543
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds23932444
DeSoto23229283
Harrison20527329
Rankin15411291
Jackson15232252
Madison10959227
Lee10719179
Jones9047169
Forrest8723159
Lauderdale7884244
Lowndes7054151
Lamar702989
Lafayette6548124
Washington5595139
Pearl River5196152
Bolivar4954134
Oktibbeha494398
Panola4771112
Warren4728128
Marshall4701106
Pontotoc447773
Union433279
Monroe4330137
Neshoba4281181
Hancock428088
Lincoln4176116
Pike3667113
Leflore3627125
Tate353388
Alcorn350974
Sunflower347694
Scott341176
Adams340988
Yazoo339376
Copiah324968
Simpson322891
Itawamba314680
Coahoma314085
Tippah306568
Prentiss298863
Covington293484
Leake285475
Marion284181
Wayne277543
George272251
Grenada269488
Newton262364
Tishomingo239770
Winston236784
Jasper230648
Stone229637
Attala226373
Chickasaw219060
Holmes200174
Clay197654
Clarke186880
Tallahatchie183742
Calhoun181332
Smith179235
Yalobusha171540
Walthall145748
Lawrence142826
Greene140134
Amite137543
Noxubee135235
Perry133538
Montgomery133044
Carroll126431
Webster121232
Jefferson Davis116734
Tunica114227
Benton106725
Claiborne105331
Kemper102429
Humphreys100133
Franklin87923
Quitman84719
Choctaw82619
Wilkinson78032
Jefferson71328
Sharkey51618
Issaquena1736
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 585607

Reported Deaths: 11536
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson851431591
Mobile48584864
Madison37411533
Shelby27192257
Tuscaloosa27145465
Montgomery26119627
Baldwin25207329
Lee17184181
Calhoun15382334
Morgan15147291
Etowah14928370
Marshall13079235
Houston12021293
Elmore10890219
St. Clair10737252
Limestone10699158
Cullman10503205
Lauderdale10240254
DeKalb9498192
Talladega8935188
Walker7775288
Autauga7537114
Jackson7384117
Blount7352139
Colbert6691142
Coffee6342132
Dale5605117
Russell478943
Chilton4763117
Covington4738125
Franklin456681
Tallapoosa4511156
Escambia439283
Chambers3936125
Dallas3742163
Clarke370563
Marion3455107
Pike332079
Lawrence3257100
Winston298373
Bibb289765
Geneva282883
Marengo262267
Barbour250661
Pickens245262
Butler240172
Hale235178
Fayette226765
Henry212845
Monroe201541
Randolph200344
Cherokee198848
Washington184339
Macon169752
Crenshaw167758
Clay165659
Cleburne161145
Lamar150938
Lowndes145355
Wilcox132331
Bullock126542
Conecuh120632
Coosa118129
Perry110328
Sumter110333
Greene99137
Choctaw64425
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