Remembering Stephen Hawking

  • By Greg Kestin
  • Posted 03.16.18
  • NOVA

Stephen Hawking had a way of bringing the most cosmic ideas down to Earth. He once explained that he studied cosmology because "it is the past that tells us who we are." In this episode of What the Physics?! we remember Hawking: his wit, his wisdom, and his work. 

Running Time: 02:58


Remembering Stephen Hawking

Published March 16, 2018

Greg Kestin: "It is the past that tells us who we are. Without it, we lose our identity."

Stephen Hawking said that at a quite well attended talk that I saw him give about two years ago at the inauguration of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative. He was actually talking about black holes. He went on to say, "It is therefore very important to determine whether past information is lost in black holes or in principle it could be recovered."

He communicated these cosmic ideas in a very down-to-Earth way. He always made physics look less like this and more like this. So, with Hawking's passing, it seems fitting to remember his work and his words as part of our identity.

Hawking is probably best known for his realization that black holes don't grow forever, like people once thought. They radiate off particles, which makes them slowly lose mass until, eventually, they die in a burst of light. This idea led to the black hole information paradox, which we're still grappling with today.

It's hard to overstate his impact on our understanding of the universe. In his PhD thesis, he showed how the Big Bang worked kind of like a black hole in reverse. It exploded outward from an infinitely dense singularity. This helped solidify the Big Bang theory as a scientific fact.

Later, much of his work was aimed at finding a complete theory of the universe: a theory that unified all the fundamental forces of the universe. His research even led him to overturn some of the greatest ideas of the past.

Oh, right, he was also a pretty funny dude.

Albert Einstein: You are bluffing, and you will lose.

Stephen Hawking: Wrong again, Albert.

Stephen Hawking: I don’t know which is a bigger disappointment: my failure to formulate a unified field theory or you.

Sheldon Cooper: Professor Hawking, it’s an honor and a privilege to meet you, sir.

Stephen Hawking: I know.

Stephen Hawking: If general relativity is correct, then the universe is expanding, correct?

Jane Wilde: Yeah.

Stephen Hawking: Okay, so, if you reverse time, then the universe is getting smaller.

Jane Wilde: All right.

Stephen Hawking: So, what if I reverse the process all the way back to see what happened at the beginning of time itself?

Hawking never won a Nobel Prize, but maybe he was just ahead of his time. We could still find those bursts of light from shrinking, radiating black holes from the past or new tiny black holes created at the Large Hadron Collider.

Stephen Hawking shone a light on the darkest objects in the universe, while remaining pretty light-hearted. He concluded his talk at Harvard by saying: "Black holes aren't as black as they are painted. They're not the eternal prisons that they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly to another universe. So, if you feel you're in a black hole, don't give up. There's a way out."



Host, Producer
Greg Kestin
Greg Kestin
Samia Bouzid
Samia Bouzid
Greg Kestin
Editorial Input from
Julia Cort
Ari Daniel
Greg Kestin
Animation and Editing
Greg Kestin
Special thanks
Entire NOVA team
From the producers of PBS NOVA © WGBH Educational Foundation
Funding provided by FQXi
Music provided by APM

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