Remembering Stephen Hawking

Jeremy Bernstein

I had one encounter with Stephen Hawking. He came in the summer of 1989 to the Aspen Center for Physics and had the office next to mine. He travelled with an entourage with whom he could communicate with his voice synthesiser. His hands still worked well enough. He gave a full house public lecture and afterwards Sidney Coleman presided over a question session. Hawking had to type out all his answers on his voice synthesiser which took a lot of time. At one point Sidney said: 'You can have it fast or you can have it good.' If I had asked a question, it would have been: how did he come up with the idea of Hawking radiation? I have always found his paper hard going and have always marvelled at the simple result at the end. In A Brief History of Time he gives an account which explains the phenomenon but not the result.

In the neighbourhood of the surface of the black hole there are very large fluctuations of the vacuum. These fluctuations supply the energy to create pairs of electrons and positrons. One of them is created inside the hole and the other escapes – the Hawking radiation. What this does not explain is the simple formula for the temperature, which varies inversely to the mass of the black hole. There were probably small black holes that were created at the time of the Big Bang but these, because of the high temperatures, have radiated away. The large black holes in the centre of our galaxy and elsewhere still remain because they are cooler.

It is sometimes asked why Hawking did not win a Nobel Prize. Nobel Prizes are not given for speculation; even Einstein did not win his for relativity. There is no experimental evidence for Hawking radiation but everyone who has studied the theory is sure that it is there.

Sidney Coleman told me another story about Hawking. He came to his place in Boston for dinner and since there were stairs Sidney carried Hawking up. A neighbour asked: 'Sidney, what are you carrying?' To which he replied: 'It is the Lucasian Professor of Physics from Cambridge.'


  • 15 March 2018 at 10:56pm
    Delaide says:
    His appearances on The Simpsons would confirm his liking for humour. So, Principal Skinner to Hawking: “I don’t like your tone.”

  • 16 March 2018 at 11:56am
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    This is from the Nobelist Sheldon Glashow...In 1990 I acted as host for Hawking as he was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard. At a reception, my wife introduced Stephen to Ella Fitzgerald, another honoree. Although Ella was almost blind and Stephen's device spoke very slowly, they seemed much to enjoy their serendipitous encounter.

  • 20 March 2018 at 5:35pm
    hollybank says:
    Hawking is especially to be remembered as a humanist who endorsed the BDS (Global Boycott of Israel) Movement. As a highly visible and respected figure, he was able to convince members of the scientific community as well as the general public that Israel's brutal ethnic cleansing and imposition of apartheid on the Palestinians must come to an end.

    • 21 March 2018 at 12:22pm
      Pennywhistler says: @ hollybank
      Hmmn. Did he comment on the REAL ethnic cleansing of the Jews of Arab and Moslem countries? On the REAL ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims? On the REAL ethnic cleansing of the Kurds? Of the Tibetans? The worldwide repression of women?

      Of his fellow scientists creating smaller and more powerful atomic weapons against all sanity?

      It's always a joy to see one-note fanatics bring up the same one issue of their lives, even in a supposedly intellectual journal.

    • 21 March 2018 at 2:33pm
      hag says: @ Pennywhistler
      Curious that some one-note relativists think that massacres in Burma somehow negate ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, or the eviction of one group from their own country in one part of the world ipso facto legitimatizes the oppression of another elsewhere.
      I guess just because so many invitations to the party get lost in the matrix means it's churlish to kvetch about your own exclusion.

    • 25 March 2018 at 10:12pm
      Mozibur Ullah says: @ Pennywhistler
      Hawking is a busy man and disabled. It's asking a great deal of him to comment on all these other issues whilst carrying on his professional work.

      It's quite possible to care about one issue dearly without being a fanatic about it. Given that Hawking himself had neither Jewish nor Middle-Eastern ancestry it's honourable and big-hearted of him to use his influence for the greater good.

  • 23 March 2018 at 2:26pm
    zbs says:
    Is there an established category of joke where the punchline is a named professorship? "The former Wykeham Professor of Logic..."

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