5 things I’m glad I learned from Stephen Hawking
Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who passed away early Wednesday at the age of 76, was a unique public figure, one who straddled the line between scientific authority and celebrity with deft, savvy care. He was the closest the world had to a science ambassador.
I’m not a theoretical physicist, nor do I have a degree in the hard sciences. But that didn’t stop me from admiring Hawking for most of my life. His books, lectures, and unpredictable media appearances all made me pay special attention to how he saw the world.
Here are just a few things I learned from Stephen Hawking.
1. Grand Unified Theory
When I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time at the tender age of 19, I had never before heard of the search for a Grand Unified Theory.
From him I learned that atomic and subatomic particles seem to behave according to different theoretical laws than huge bodies like planets and stars. A movement in theoretical physics has revolved around trying to form a unifying theory, which ties together the two seemingly divergent set of laws. Hawking was at the forefront at this movement.
This is an incredibly simplistic way of describing a highly complex theoretical dilemma. But still, it blew my mind. For the past 15 years, I’ve often thought about this intense puzzle. I’m certain I couldn’t offer any help to him or the teams of smarter minds than mine working on it. Yet, I still feel grateful to know about it.
2. Heat can escape black holes
You probably know the popular notion that nothing can escape the extreme gravitational pull of a black hole. Well, Hawking thought otherwise. He calculated that the immense vacuum created by a black hole isn’t actually empty.
In 1974, Hawking presented his theory that black holes actually emit black body radiation from just beyond the event horizon. It’s a theory called Hawking radiation, and though it hasn’t been completely verified, a desktop black hole in Italy found promising evidence in 2010 that his theory might be correct.
3. Humans need to leave Earth, stat
Towards the end of his life, Hawking grew more vocal about our need to find other, extraterrestrial habitats. Humanity’s drain on natural resources, the threat of climate change, and concerns around overpopulation led the scientist to plead with our Earth-bound species to relocate.
As recently as last November, Hawking warned we may only have 600 years left on an inhabitable planet and stressed the need to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Hawking was one of the most prominent and eloquent speakers on the imperative to invest in space travel. Thank you for that, Dr. Hawking.
4. AI is seriously scary
The last several years have seen global intellectual luminaries pointing at the falling sky of an oncoming artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, warning the world that we should be careful how much agency we give our technology.
Hawking was one of the loudest to extol the severe dangers that may lie ahead for our desire to create smarter computation. He pleaded last year for creators of artificial intelligence to make cautious decisions on their research, otherwise AI might become, “the worst event in the history of our civilization.”
5. Comedy and intelligence go hand in hand
I remember seeing Stephen Hawking’s brief and hilarious cameo in The Simpsons when I was still a teenager and it taught me yet another valuable lesson.
Up to that point in my life, I had never drawn a comparison between intelligence and comedy. Something about Hawking’s silly, good-natured, and self-deprecating appearance on that cartoon flipped a switch in my head about the flexibility of what “intelligence” means.
It seems like a natural lesson that many learn early, but for me, Hawking’s willing and unexpected appearance opened my eyes. For a young, impressionable kid unsure about how people should act, I think very fondly on his comedic turn. It expanded my ideas on how to perceive others and how to let others perceive me.
Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You meant a lot to many people, and I’m happy to be included somewhere in that group.