|Stephen Hawking, 1980s|
On March 14, 2018, the world lost Stephen Hawking, who died at the age of 76 after having been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease at the age of 21. With what had seemed a death sentence, he refused to concede to disabilities that seemed insurmountable, to become a legendary physicist. Not only did his twisted body confine him to a wheelchair but also necessitated a speech synthesizer to enable him to speak. Yet, nothing seemed capable of destroying his ability to explore the universe. His ideas will continue to influence the study of space for decades to come.
His studies led him to issue warnings to those of us living in his time about consequences for the future if we continue as we are doing. He projected the possibility that at the current population growth of our planet, humans may limit their own time on earth through the heat generated by over-population. In effect, he seemed to forecast a similar environmental crisis for humans as dinosaurs confronted in the Ice Age, but of a reverse temperature threat. He also warned that Artificial Intelligence, even with its potential to do positive things, also risks facilitating the creation of powerful weapons of terror. "Success in creating effective Al could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization, or the worst," Hawking warned.
Hawking is certainly to be admired for his willingness to create a productive life when many of us would have given up as the disability worsened. When asked by an interviewer how he might change the universe, if that were possible, he replied: "If I had designed it differently, it wouldn't have produced me. ...I'm prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like." His dry sense of humor, as well as his daily courage, are to be admired.
One of his college professors said of him, "It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it." That confidence sometimes got him into trouble academically, but it also gave him the confidence to pursue his own ideas and not be bound by ideas of others.
He used his sense of humor to dispute those who suggest time travel into the past is possible by hosting a party. However, the invitation gave a date already past, reducing his guest list to those time-travelers who had the ability to travel backward in order to attend. No guests arrived.
Loss of speech was an early result of his disease, but he used a computer program called the Equalizer, developed by Walter Woltosz. First operated with his hand, when that was no longer possible he used the muscles of his cheek. Eventually he used a different program called SwiftKey, which utilized input from his papers and other writings to allow discussing ideas without letter by letter entries.
Mobility was also a gradually increasing problem, as was breathing, yet he managed to continue a productive life until his death on March 17, 2018, having been a guest on Neil deGrasse Tyson's show StarTalk that same month. Such courage should inspire all of us as we deal with far smaller issues in our lives.
He raised questions for all of us, admitting that he did not know the answers but wanted "to get people to think about it, and to be aware of the dangers we now face." Among his concerns were the dangers to Earth from such things as nuclear war, global warming, and genetically engineered viruses, and even the possibility of aliens. Resting the likely odds of there being aliens on the vastness of the universe, he suggested that if there were aliens who visited our planet, we should reflect on what happened to Native Americans when Columbus landed in America, "...which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans." In other words, if aliens did reach Earth, their technology might exceed ours, and contact with them might be unwise.
However, that did not make Hawking reluctant for us to travel in space ourselves, and he personally wanted to do so. Richard Branson offered him a free flight on Virgin Galactic, and Hawking actually flew on a jet operated by Zero-G Corp. and experienced weightlessness to see if he could withstand the g-forces of space flight. He could. Unfortunately, the completion of Virgin Galactic did not progress as quickly as projected, and Hawking did not get to fly in space. However, I can only imagine the joy and wonder of his Zero-G flight, experiencing the freedom of weightlessness in contrast to his physical restrictions of Earth's gravity.
In the last decades of his life, Hawking began to speak out on behalf of protecting our own planet for our children. In his own country, he spoke out against England's withdrawal from the European Union, believing science benefits from a sharing of ideas among countries, with international collaboration by scientists conducting modern research beyond national boundaries.
He also spoke out strongly about global warming, saying: "Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it's one we can prevent if we act now." His emphasis was on nations acting together, warning that if we withdraw from joint efforts, we "...will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world for us and our children." He used a planet in our own solar system as an example of what Earth might become, "...like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid."
So, we have lost Stephen Hawking, but the ideas and warnings he gave us remain, and his example of a productive life in the face of such challenges is not the least among all of the important things he left behind!
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Reading tributes to Stephen Hawking led me to consider the great scientific minds that made their contributions during the lifetime of Isaac Werner. Without computers, copy machines, and the refined instruments of scientists of the century after Isaac's death, or of the present day. Next week's blog will pay homage to some of the scientists making great discoveries while Isaac Werner lived.