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What Discoveries Were Made by Stephen Hawking?

Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

What Discoveries Were Made by Stephen Hawking?

Stephen Hawking's main contributions to the field of physics and cosmology lie in the studies of:

  • The Origins of the Universe
  • Time
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Gravitational and Spacetime Singularities
  • Black Hole Radiation
  • A Universe Without Spacetime Boundaries
  • Atheism
  • The High Likelihood of the Existence of Extraterrestrial Life

1. A Universe Without Space-Time Boundaries

Stephen Hawking hypothesized, and more or less proved with mathematical and physics models, the idea that the universe has no space-time boundaries. He explained it like this:

"The Big Bang theory says that the universe of matter and energy began at a single point, which reached a critical mass, then exploded outward. The universe continues to expand. In a closed universe theory, at some point, the universe is going to 'hit the wall,' when enough energy has been expended from the original big bang, then begin to shrink again. In an open universe theory, the universe will just continue to expand indefinitely as the force of gravity becomes weaker and weaker as objects in space spread further apart."

His idea is that you can't have either space or time before the Big Bang. Therefore, the universe has no space-time boundary. Space-time boundaries are a completely human and artificial construct that do not really exist.

In 2006, with Thomas Hertog at CERN in Switzerland, Stephen Hawking proposed that the universe has no unique initial state and that working outward to predict the current configuration of the universe from one particular state, such as in the Big Bang Theory, contains a fallacy. Rather, Hawking's "top-down" cosmology says that in some ways, the present selects the past from a simultaneous superimposition of all the possible pasts.

2. Black Hole Radiation

Let's examine Hawking's discovery on black holes that emit radiation. A black hole is a collapsed star the has zero volume and practically infinite mass. Black holes are so dense that it was believed nothing could escape from them once it passed the "event horizon," or the proximity to a black hole where its gravity becomes irresistible. Stephen Hawking postulated the existence of radiation that emits through a black hole and comes out the other side. This is now accepted science, and the concept is known as Hawking radiation.

3. Probability of Extraterrestrial Life

Hawking was dearly beloved by sci-fi fans and outer-space enthusiasts because he was a strong proponent of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

He said, without qualification, that the balance of probability lies strongly in favor of the existence of extraterrestrial life. He postulated that Earth has already been visited by extraterrestrial life in the form of viruses and that he enjoyed imagining what more developed life forms could look like in galaxies far away.

However, he seriously doubted that there are humanoid life forms in other galaxies. Hawking said that it would be highly unlikely that life-supporting planets elsewhere would mirror lifeforms on Earth to such an extent. He blamed this on our failure to broaden our imagination when it comes to depictions of extraterrestrial life in fiction and in movies. We just can't imagine intelligent life that isn't humanoid, it seems.

Hawking thinks that, should we be visited by intelligent alien life, the occurrence might be a bad one for Earthlings:

"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."

He also believes the only way to ensure the continuance of the human race is by developing spacecraft capable of closed bionic systems which will support life indefinitely, should our world become uninhabitable for some reason, either naturally or unnaturally.

Before Hawking passed away in March 2018, he was working on a $100 million project searching for life in the universe.

Black hole in the universe.

Black hole in the universe.

I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.

— Stephen Hawking

4. Stephen Hawking on God

The quote above sort of encapsulates Stephen Hawking's stance on God and religion. Hawking's philosophical endeavors in his youth led him to discuss many theories about religion and God throughout his life. He is not religious in the ordinary sense of the word—he doesn't believe that there was a God who created the universe; he doesn't believe in any sort of afterlife; and he doesn't believe in heaven or hell.

He does, however, believe in a grand celestial order, and that there is a grand design to all the systems of the universe and to life itself.

His work on the Unification Theory of Physics led him to believe that we might never be able to come up with one universal theory. Instead, we might have to use different parts of different theories to explain different phenomena, but there is an underlying unifying factor if we could only get to it. It would explain the contradictions between the theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics. That unifying factor would be "God" to Stephen Hawking.

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

— Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking and Elaine Mason on their wedding day.

Stephen Hawking and Elaine Mason on their wedding day.

A Brief Overview of the Life and Times of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England, to Frank Hawking, a research scientist in the field of biology, and Isobel Hawking. When Stephen was still a toddler, the family moved from London to Oxford to avoid the blitz during the Second World War.

Stephen Hawking’s free time while attending St Albans School in Southeast England was spent with his friends—a group of young, intellectual boys—designing and playing complex board games with labyrinthine rules, of which Hawking was the architect.

His first love was mathematics. Though he was an indifferent and bored student, a math teacher by the name of Dikran Tahta inspired him with a true love for higher mathematics. Many of his teachers complained that he was not involved or challenged by ordinary coursework, but those same teachers also recognized Stephen's immense talent for thinking outside the box. Mathematics gave him a medium through which to express complicated and abstract thoughts that appeared to come naturally to him. Although far from the archetype of a perfect student, he was miles ahead of his peers in his creative way of thinking.

After they tired of board games, Hawking and his friends moved on to electronics and model airplanes. In later years, they would focus their attention on religion and mysticism. As young teenagers, the boys would spend hours discussing their thoughts and feelings surrounding religion, God, the metaphysical, ESP, and the occult.

Politically, Stephen was influenced by his mother, who was involved in the Communist Party before moving toward Labour Party in the 1950s. While Hawking was never as politically active as his mother, Isobel Hawking’s political activism and involvement helped shape his interest in left-wing politics.

University Education

Stephen Hawking and his father argued over Stephen’s academic course of study at university—his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and study medicine, while Stephen wanted to study mathematics and physics.

Hawking's father wanted him to attend University College at Oxford, but because the college had no mathematics chair or fellow, he majored in physics instead. He was often bored by the meager levels of intellectual stimulation at Oxford, but discovered and became involved in rowing in his second year. In 1962, Hawking received a bachelor's degree from Oxford at the age of twenty.

Hawking then went to Cambridge for his graduate studies in physics. In the days leading up to the commencement of his studies there, he began to experience difficulty with basic tasks, such as tying his shoelaces, and occasionally found himself acting strangely clumsy and slurring his words. However, perhaps out of denial, he said nothing and continued to act normally.

When Hawking returned home for the Christmas holidays after his first semester at Cambridge, his parents immediately noticed his bizarre behavior and insisted he undergo testing to determine the cause of his strange symptoms.

Hawking fell into a deep depression after he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease which causes the gradual deterioration of the motor neurons. Since there is no cure or treatment for ALS, most who suffer from the condition don't survive more than 10 years after being diagnosed. At the time of his diagnosis, he was given two years to live. Despite the odds, Hawking battled the terribly debilitating illness for 56 years until his death in 2018 at age 76.

Personal Life

It was his marriage to Jane Wilde, a language student, that gave Hawking the impetus to continue his studies in the graduate program at Cambridge. He once said, regarding his engagement to Wilde:

"Getting engaged lifted my spirits and I realised, if we were going to get married, I had to do a job and finish my PhD. I began to work hard and I enjoyed it."

Without that motivating influence, the world might have gone without some of the terrific discoveries Hawking contributed to the field of cosmology. The original diagnosis rattled Stephen's world, causing him to question his studies since he was expected to die so soon. However, the disease stabilized with the aid of medication, which allowed Hawking to marry and receive his Ph.D.

The two remained married for 25 years and had three children: Robert, Lucy, and Timothy. Jane helped care for Hawking and assisted him in overcoming his illness until their divorced in 1990. Hawking then remarried, this time to his personal care assistant Elaine Mason, in 1995. They divorced after 11 years of marriage in 2006, an event which stirred up controversy when reports emerged that Elaine was abusing Hawking.

Still, Hawking always described himself as "lucky," which shows his resilience and optimistic point of view. In a speech he gave on his 70th birthday, his bright outlook shined through:

"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet," Hawking said. "Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up."

For the latter half of his life, Hawking had completely lost his powers of speech and mostly all of his motor functions. To speak, he used a voice-generating device which was built at Cambridge and relied on the vibrations of his cheek to translate his words.

Stephen Hawking's Publications

Stephen Hawking has published many popular books in his field, and, unlike other cosmologists, his work is work is extremely accessible to everyday readers who aren't well-versed in the terminology of physics, mathematics or cosmology. His writing is clear, concise and full of humour, which is a fascinating and refreshing change since the concepts he proposes within the text are grandiose. Below is a list of some of the more accessible books Stephen Hawking has published:

  • A Brief History of Time (1988)
  • Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1994)
  • The Nature of Space and Time (1996)
  • The Universe in a Nutshell (2001)
  • The Future of Spacetime (2002)
  • On the Shoulders of Giants (2002)
  • The Theory of Everything (2002)
  • God Created Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs that Changed History (2005)
  • The Grand Design (2010)
  • The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of (2011)
  • The Origin of (Almost) Everything (2016)