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A Caltech Colleague Remembers Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking speaking in New York in April 2016. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Physicist Stephen Hawking brought esoteric knowledge of the universe, time and particle physics to the masses. Today, colleagues at CalTech in Pasadena, where Hawking was an almost annual visitor, remembered their famed colleague as a brilliant, determined thinker.

Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll spoke with KQED Science’s Danielle Venton about Hawking’s life and reach. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

VENTON: Tell me about Hawking’s connection to Caltech. I understand he was once a Fellow there?

CARROLL: One of the amazing things about Stephen was that, despite his disability, he didn’t let it slow him down in any way. He traveled the world and he could go anywhere, so we were very honored to have him visit CalTech so frequently.

He would come once a year in the winter-spring and spend several weeks here. In fact one of his most important papers back in the 1970s was written here at Caltech.


VENTON: Tell me about that paper.

CARROLL: It was one of the papers where he talked about black holes radiating. So we all know about black holes, that they have so much gravity that nothing can escape them. Hawking sort of made his fame in the late 1960s and early 70s by studying the properties of black holes. But it was around 1973-74 that he applied the rules of quantum mechanics to black holes. And to his and everyone else’s surprise he found that black holes would emit radiation.

Not only was it amazing calculation but he had the strength of mind to realize that this result, as surprising as it was, was correct. And he did some of the work here at Caltech and it’s still the biggest problem we have facing us in the world [of physics] — trying to reconcile quantum mechanics and gravity.

VENTON: He always gave us the impression of having a great sense of humor and humility. How did he come across in real life?

A man sitting in a wheel chair peers at the camera.
Stephen Hawking in 2013 (Rick Diaz © Official SWH)

CARROLL: Actually, I would I would say that Stephen was one of the most stubborn and willful people I’ve ever met. I think that those characteristics served him very very well.

Probably one of my great moments was in 1998, after astronomers discovered that the universe is not only expanding but accelerating. I was a postdoc in Santa Barbara at the time and Hawking was visiting in Santa Barbara. I got a summons down to his office because I was an expert in this tiny little area of these observations that showed the universe was accelerating and he wanted to know about it. This was the one time in my life that I knew something that Stephen Hawking didn’t and helped to explain it to him. And, you know, it was slow because it took him a long time to make a sentence. But therefore every word counted and the brilliance of his mind shone through in everything he said, whether it was a deep scientific statement or whether he was just making a wisecrack.

VENTON: He was he was possibly the world’s most beloved scientist. What do you attribute that kind of popularity to?

CARROLL: He was exceptional in the scientific contributions he made, which would have made him famous no matter what other qualities he had. And he was also exceptional in his ability to reach out to broader audiences. His recognizability as a scientist was orders of magnitude higher than anyone else alive and somehow he managed to be very recognizably human despite the fact that he was talking about where the universe came from what happened inside black holes. He came up with wonderful analogies, made sly jokes, and people just wanted to go along with him. They wanted to follow him on that journey.

And he was an inspiration to many people as well, I think, in part because of his achievements going hand-in-hand with his disability. One of the first times I ran to Stephen was at a whiskey tasting. We were at a physics conference in the northern lands of England. After the dinner, the organizers had a tasting of single-malt Scotches.

So you had all these physicists there sipping on Scotches and there’s Stephen in the back with nurses helping him taste all the different Scotches because he just refused to let his disability get in the way of experiencing anything. He absolutely lived life to the fullest and it showed not only in his scientific accomplishments but just in the joie de vivre he had. I think that was inspirational to all sorts of people, whether they’re physicists or not.

Hawking is survived by three children and three grandchildren.

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