Stephen Hawking outside Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, in 2015 (Lwp Kommunikáció [CC / Flickr])

By Neil Johnson

Stephen Hawking outside Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, in 2015 (Lwp Kommunikáció [CC / Flickr])

The Popular Physicist

By Neil Johnson
A UM physicist comments on the passing of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

Unfortunately, Stephen Hawking is dead. This news hit us all hard, whether we are ourselves physicists or not. This fact in itself immediately tells us something about his impact: The passing of 99.9% of physicists is not international news, but Stephen Hawking was truly unique. Not just in terms of the research that he produced and his public engagement in terms of science, but also in terms of his lifelong mission to understand the mysteries of the universe.

His research and writings covered every timescale and lengthscale in the universe, from the tiniest scale of quantum physics, through to black holes, to the overall timeline of the universe itself in terms of its origins and eventual fate. In terms of some of his most important achievements, he was the one with Roger Penrose who showed that if there was a Big Bang, then it started from a singularity — which is the mathematical name for an infinitely small point. He also showed that black holes radiate energy while they lose mass, in the form of what we now call Hawking radiation, because of quantum effects near the so-called event horizon. He also predicted the existence of mini-black holes at the time of the Big Bang. 

His writings and persona were also famous: Who hasn’t heard of his A Brief History of Time book? And he garnered many fans of his work who otherwise may never have been interested in physics, through his impact in the mainstream media and culture, including frequent mentions and even appearances on “The Big Bang Theory” TV show. 

Both physicists and non-physicists alike have been inspired by Stephen Hawking — both as a person and as a physicist. Personally, I attended some lectures that he gave many years ago at Cambridge and Oxford Universities in England, and was fascinated by his devotion to key outstanding questions in physics. But the thing for which I will most remember him and be grateful to him, is something that many people may not know.

He was once asked his opinion on the statement that the 20th century was the century of physics and that this century would be the century of biology. Hawking replied that the 21st century will be the century of complexity. It was his opinion that we already have discovered the basic laws that govern matter and understand all the normal situations, and that what we don’t know is how the laws fit together, and what happens under extreme conditions. This – the transdisciplinary science of complexity and extremes – all in one neatly summarized phrase.

This seemed to me the best piece of career advice I had ever heard, and I not only took it to heart in my own work, but it still guides me.

Neil Johnson is a professor of physics at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences. Prior to coming to UM in 2007, he was professor of physics at Oxford University. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) as well as the recipient of the 2018 Burton Award from the APS.