Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Giant In His Field


It is a sad truth that, for the vast majority of human beings, their actions during their lives don't really move the needle at all in terms of humanity at a global scale. While this may be depressing to many, my point is to highlight someone who was the exception to this rule.

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, the most common question that was asked was "Who is going to carry on his work?" Which, as it turned out, was a silly question ... the mantle was taken up quite ably by people like Kip Thorne, Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan.

And Stephen Hawking.



Stephen Hawking was truly a giant in the realm of physics. His book "A Brief History Of Time" introduced some fairly esoteric concepts -- the curvature of space in dimensions beyond the three we can directly experience; the truly bizarre things that happen inside the event horizon of a black hole -- in a way that made them accessible to the general public without sacrificing any of the scientific and intellectual underpinnings behind these concepts. He inspired millions (including yours truly) to study further the weird, wonderful, fascinating universe that exists at the subatomic and quantum levels.

All this without being able to move or speak.

History will remember him for being one of the greatest minds in human history. Scientists will be studying and refining -- and in some cases refuting -- theories he postulated for decades, even centuries, to come. There will be talk of his genius, the ways in which he opened whole new avenues of study. There will be occasional blurbs talking about his guest appearances -- on "The Simpsons," sitting down for a beer with Homer; playing poker on "Star Trek: The Next Generation;" his ability to repeatedly get the best of Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory."

Sadly, as with any event like this, there are also conspiracy theorists popping up with decidedly wacky ideas of "the truth." One particularly entertaining one that I found is that Hawking actually died in 1974 and had been replaced by the Illuminati with a doppelgänger, apparently with the intent of further securing world domination.

Now that Hawking has exited this mortal plane, there are those who are asking who will take over. Which is all well and good, as far as it goes ... after all, there is absolutely no doubt that another mind will come along who will succeed Hawking in the popular consciousness in much the same way that Hawking succeeded Einstein. But the question misses the point. It's not as much about the who as it is about the what.



It was Hawking's examination of the universe at both the cosmological and quantum levels that has done more to further human understanding of the very nature of our existence than just about anything else. Say what you will about religion, politics, culture ... Hawking made it possible for us to understand that all of these things are mere manifestations of the behavior of matter and energy at the most fundamental level, and that the divisions between us are almost purely arbitrary.

Yes, there will be another great mind that comes along. Yes, it is entirely possible that this mind will be able to prove that Hawking was wrong about some things. This is as it should be ... after all, science is all about discovery, and learning, and exploration, and quite frankly nobody learns anything by always getting it right. But there will never be another Hawking.

Science -- all of humanity -- has lost a giant. While we grieve for that loss -- and rightly so -- we can gain a small measure of comfort by the legacy he leaves behind.

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