Caltech Professor Shares Fun Memories of Stephen Hawking

Published : Saturday, April 14, 2018 | 5:46 AM

Stephen Hawking

World-renowned theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 at the age of 76, did not always take himself too seriously, Caltech professor John Preskill writes in a tribute published in the journal Science Thursday.

Preskill, a theoretical physicist and the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, wrote that Hawking “enjoyed being treated irreverently.”

“In the middle of a scientific discussion, I could interject, ‘And what makes you so sure of that, Mr. Know-It-All?’ knowing that Stephen would respond with his eyes twinkling: ‘Wanna bet?’” Preskill wrote.

And Hawking did indeed like to bet, reports space exploration and astronomy news website, often placing wagers on scientific questions with Preskill and fellow physicist Kip Thorne, who shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves.

The most famous of these bets, the report said, struck in February 1997, concerned whether black holes obliterate everything that they gobble up. Hawking and Thorne wagered “yes,” whereas Preskill bet that physical information can survive in a black hole’s heart. The stakes? An encyclopedia of the winner’s choice.

Hawking conceded the bet in 2004 and gave Preskill with a copy of “Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia” in Dublin, in front of hundreds of scientists and dozens of reporters.

“You can’t buy one of those in Ireland, so Stephen’s assistant had arranged to have it shipped overnight,” Preskill wrote in the Science tribute. “Not knowing what else to do, I held the book over my head as though I had just won the Wimbledon final, while what seemed like a million flashbulbs popped to record the moment.”

In the tribute, Preskill also highlighted Hawking’s greatest scientific accomplishments, some of which have transformed man’s understanding of the universe. Hawking’s early work, for example, showed that time had a beginning, and that the laws of physics must have broken down very early in the history of the universe.

Hawking also demonstrated that black holes aren’t entirely black; they actually emit radiation very slowly and will therefore eventually evaporate, given enough time.

The research was published in 1974, and “shook the world of physics,” according to Preskill’s tribute.

“A major milestone in the history of science, the theory of Hawking radiation established a profound connection among gravitation, quantum physics, and information science, which still guides the ongoing search for a more complete theory of quantum gravity,” Preskill wrote.

Hawking also brought cosmology to the masses in a series of best-selling books, including “A Brief History of Time” and “The Universe in a Nutshell.”

Over the years, Hawking lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which robbed his body of most of its motor functions. Wheelchair-bound and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication, Hawking continued to combine family life – he has three children and three grandchildren – with his research into theoretical physics, in addition to an extensive programme of travel and public lectures.

Preskill adds that Hawking’s courage and high spirits in the face of his disability inspired millions, adding that the physicist deserved the fame that came his way.

“Combining extraordinary depth of thought with an irrepressible sense of play – that’s what I’ll remember best about Stephen Hawking,” Preskill wrote.

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