Remembering Stephen Hawking: Philosopher, Agitator, Gambler, Provocateur, Fighter

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on March 20, 2018
Robert Koeneman
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RIP Stephen Hawking: Enlightener 1942―2018.

The Philosopher

At Google’s Zeitgeist conference in Hertfordshire 2011, Stephen Hawking proclaimed, “philosophy is dead,” because “philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” As The Telegraph reported back then, Hawking thought that “the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data, such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research.” At the same conference, he went on to say what is now one of his famous quotes: “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” This was such a strong belief of his that he finished his popular book, Brief History of Time, on the same note. Armchair philosophers were not pleased.

The Agitator

In another now-famous quote, Hawking stated, “Nothing cannot exist forever.” With this mindset, he went on to tackle open questions regarding the most mysterious “objects” in the universe, black holes. This was the mid-1970s, a time when scientists were happy with the status quo. The common belief at the time was that black holes have such massive gravitational pull that they take gravity to its logical extreme―nothing that falls in can ever come out. Intrigued by the work of Soviet scientists Yakov Zel’dovich and Alexei Starobinsky on the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, which indicated that rotating black holes should create and emit particles, Hawking discovered that black holes could, indeed, evaporate into non-existence. In what is now known as Hawking Radiation, “black holes that do not gain mass through other means are expected to shrink and ultimately vanish.” Armchair scientists were not pleased.

The Gambler

In a 2012 NPR interview with David Greene, Hawking said, “I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle would not be found. It seems I have just lost $100.” The Daily News reported at the time, “The bet came due Wednesday after scientists from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva claimed the discovery of what they say could be a Higgs boson, a long-theorized subatomic smidgen named for Peter Higgs, a British physicist who four decades ago predicted the existence of a particle that could explain the origins of matter.” Humble as he was, Hawking not only paid the $100, he went on to say, “This is an important result, and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize.”

The Provocateur

Hawking’s was an open mind of quest and exploration, and his bets, which were famous in the scientific community, were designed to challenge colleagues. An inspiring tribute by National Geographic last week wrote, “The famous physicist was fond of making scientific bets and predictions, from the nature of black holes to the end of humanity.” His discovery of the Hawking Radiation was, as National Geographic calls it, a “Bombshell, which inspired a whole new way of looking at black holes through a quantum lens.” His bets and bombshells became famous for their ability to inspire people in science to ask the tough questions that he believed philosophers were no longer equipped to ask (as they had abandoned the tools that allow us to understand the world).

From artificial intelligence to extraterrestrial life, his bombshell statements and bets forced scientists (and non-scientists alike) to think. In his 2010 documentary series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, he cautioned, “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.” In a 2014 BBC interview, Hawking warned, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race, it would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

The Fighter

His was a fight against limits: “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.” Hawking’s was a beautiful mind trapped in a body that did not function. His perseverance and use of technology enabled him to express some of the world’s most complex ideas by merely using his eyes to select the letters. This act alone is a mind-blowing feat from a man who fought until his last day, believing that, “work gives you meaning, and purpose and life are empty without it.”

His ultimate fight was for human equality and understanding: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. So far, the trend seems to be toward…technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

Drifting into the Light

Maybe the isolation that his physical condition put him into forced him to think differently, in other dimensions, as if he were able to drift there. He was an astounding mind who took humanity forward, inspiring and recruiting so many young minds into science through his example. One can only hope that he loses one of his multiple bets: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Wherever you are now Stephen Hawking, thank you for the light.


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