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    Stephen Hawking
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2018 Mar 16, 09:35 -0700

    I posted this on FB about two hours after the news of Stephen Hawking's death was announced. I thought some of you here might want to read it.

    Stephen Hawking died today, at age 76. That's a long life for a man who was diagnosed with a terminal disease over fifty years ago. Who was this guy? Was he another Einstein? The Genius of the Century?! Short answer: not even close. He was a good physicist --a very good physicist with a handful of unique, groundbreaking theoretical contributions. But beyond research, Hawking was something else entirely, possibly even more important... Stephen Hawking was a pop star!

    Stephen Hawking was one of the biggest science popularizers in the past fifty years. He was a superstar on that scale. But most people are surprised to learn he was not especially important as a physicist. To put a rough number on it, he was one of the "top 500" physicists in the world (out of a generous sea of perhaps a hundred thousand who are physicists professionally). His really big contribution to physics came 45 years ago when he developed paradigm-shattering theoretical models connecting general relativity (Einstein's highly successful theory that explains gravitation by spacetime curvature) with quantum mechanics and also thermodynamics. Hawking provided convincing arguments that black holes are not quite black and emit radiation through a process sometimes counted as "quantum tunneling" and also interpreted as amplitudes for ionizing the vacuum in the space around a black hole. If the universe contained any subatomic black holes, these would "evaporate" in a flash of energy in a few seconds. To this day, this theoretical process is known as "Hawking radiation". Utterly unprovable in the sense of normal science and despite the complete lack of experimental and observational evidence, his models proved so compelling that they are almost universally acceptable in this "hot" but narrow field exploring the intersection of spacetime physics and quantum mechanics. Hawking explored these concepts and related ideas in cosmology for the rest of his life and contributed fascinating ideas to the debate, but he never made the big breakthrough that (probably) he himself and (definitely) many of his collaborators expected. Indeed, if Hawking had been struck down by his illness forty years ago, after that youthful breakthrough that led to the idea of "Hawking radiation", today's theoretical physics would be scarcely different. But the status of science in the public mind? That would surely change...

    Stephen Hawking's place in the history of science is not that of a Newton, or a Maxwell, or an Einstein. He achieved no great synthesis. Rather his place in science rested on his ability to achieve a connection with normal people interested in science who were drawn to him, in part, by their sympathy, as well as their awe, for someone who was intellectually brilliant but imprisoned by a broken body. His public lectures were sell-outs. His popular books, most especially "A Brief History of Time" became mass-market blockbusters. Even though they were largely acknowledged to be rather incomprehensible, Hawking's books intrigued readers as a "window" into the mind of a genius.

    There was a bizarre, "freak show" side to this public fascination with Stephen Hawking as well. The computer-generated "Hawking voice" was obsolete technology decades ago, but Hawking kept it alive because it became a trademark for him. It made him a kind of pop-culture character, a caricature of a "science nerd" worthy of appearing in episodes of Star Trek and The Simpsons, too.

    In recent years, Hawking began making "big pronouncements" for example suggesting that humans must colonize other worlds, and throwing his support behind a couple of projects to find alien civilizations and to send a very small space probe to another star. He had no particular expertise in these topics, but they intrigued him personally, and why not get some personal value out of all that pop culture fame? Whether he will have any lasting impact in those areas remains to be seen. I would say probably not.

    I'm writing this up because folks who know me expect me to know about Hawking's science. And yes, I do. My own brief physics research (for which I was awarded High Honors in Physics with my BA and the Bertman Prize in Physics over three long decades ago) was a lightweight examination of physics related to Hawking radiation. I studied the excitation and ionization of Hydrogen atoms near small black holes. Fascinating stuff... general relativity and quantum mechanics mixed together. Hard not to find it "cosmic"... And it has the unique advantage of being safe from observational disproof for centuries to come!

    Frank Reed
    Clockwork Mapping / ReedNavigation.com
    Conanicut Island USA

       
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