Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Professor Hawking continues to radiate


Yesterday was Pi day, and also the birthday of Einstein. So I was expecting to read all those nerdy articles they usually come up with. But later in the day, the devastating news of the demise of Prof Stephen Hawking upset us all. Very few scientists have attained the kind of cult status with Professor Hawking had attained. His persistent scientific approach, his zest for life was a inspiration to many.


But thinking of him now, I am reminded of my own childhood friend, who passed away years ago. His name is Krishnadev, and it was him who had introduced me to Hawking and his Hawking radiation. Way back in school days, physics was my favourite subject. Our school textbooks did not have the time to dedicate entire chapters to subjects like stars and universes, which honestly cannot be covered in a million chapters. The school course at that time, and I think even till this day, was backward in comparison to contemporary scientific knowledge. The 10th grade physice text book did mention black holes, but made no mention of Hawking radiation. It was ‘out of syllabus’. But there was a genius in our class who was always ten steps ahead of the class teacher. C Krishnadev, who would later end up in IIT Chennai, was the brightest mind I personally knew, and a kind hearted and good friend. He told me about this fantastic book called ‘A Brief History of Time’, which was available in our school library. And how that one book had more knowledge than all of the world’s religious books combined. I expected it to be a comic or science fiction of some sort, it was not. But it turned out to be so much more entertaining and fun than anything I had read at that time. I was surprised that none of that was in our ‘prescribed’ course syllabus at that time.

Anyway, thats when I started hero worshipping Prof Hawking. I have also downloaded and tried to read his doctoral Thesis , ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’, but frankly, I have now forgotten the little high school physics I had. The 1966 doctoral thesis by the world’s most recognisable scientist is the most requested item in Apollo with the catalogue record alone attracting hundreds of views per month. In just the past few months, the University has received hundreds of requests from readers wishing to download Professor Hawking’s thesis in full.  Not everyone can truly understand this work, his best selling book is a much more concise and simplfied read.

Up until that point, I had expected Hawking to be just that, a highly capable scientist, whos genius cannot be gauged by the common man. But later I was surprised when I saw this popularity continuing to rise, and the pop culture emerging around him. He showed no signs of resting. He gave more talks and appearances, he appeared on TV in the news as well as in TV shows. He was featured in cartoons and sketches. He even sang for Monty Python !

Along with Prof Tyson,  and Prof Brian Cox, he became one of our generation’s rockstar astrophysicist. Suddenly, science was cool !

Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask, why are we here ? Where did we come from ? Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion because it gives comfort. And they do not trust or understand science.  - Prof Stephen Hawking

And that is the truth about science, it has always been cool. As the generation of religous, superstitious and doomsday obsessed pessimists wither away, a new generation of young scientists will come in, to carry on the good work done by generations of past scientists. We may not understand the mysteries of our universe today, but mankind as a whole, will be able to do that at some point in future.  And scientists like Prof Hawking will continue to inspire them. A different kind of Hawking radiation, so to speak.



He did his part. It is upto us now.