Stephen Hawking passes away: A quick guide to the superstar-scientist's best books
Stephen Hawking's death is like a supernova, for he leaves behind a legacy of books which could be understood by even those readers who did not have an in-depth knowledge of science | #FirstCulture
Stars have always captured the imagination of humans, probably because of their bright appearances, as well as their mysterious and rapid motions in the night sky. From folklore to poetic metaphor and philosophy, they are omnipresent. Human bodies are closely connected with the life cycles of the cosmos, and tons of cosmic dust falling to the Earth affects all of us. From grains of sand to massive stars, and of course, humans themselves, everything is made of stardust. Our bodies are made of remnants of a dying star, or as Carl Sagan put it, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
The death of a Star, it seems, is more of a beginning, rather than an end — a transfer of the energy, at least that’s what Einstein and the laws of thermodynamics tell us. However, how it dies depends on the type of star it is. Comparatively smaller stars, like our Sun, will expand to become red giants, but some massive stars die a rather explosive death — a supernova, which is the explosion of a star, the largest explosion that takes place in space. These supernovae can radiate more energy than our sun will in its entire lifetime, and they're also the primary source of heavy elements in the universe.
These astronomical events are so bright that they can be observed with the naked eye from the Earth. Stephen Hawking’s death is perhaps, no less than any Supernova, for he was truly a giant star in the world of science, with his own bright, shining light. A light which uncovered the mysterious “darkness” of black holes and changed the way we perceive them. He never gave up despite all the challenges that he was faced with, even when life turned 180 degrees for him, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963, at the age of 21.
His body of work on the origins of the Universe, from the Big Bang to black holes, fundamentally changed the field of cosmology. Known for his wit and sarcasm, Hawking was more than just a theoretical physicist, and his popularity was not just limited to astrophysics circles. He was a pop culture celebrity, and made appearances in Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory. Apart from being the coolest theoretical physicist, Hawking authored some of the most successful books explaining the complicated dynamics of the universe, black holes, Quantum Theory and other subjects in a manner which appealed to even those readers who may not have an in-depth understanding of science.
His first book, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988 and became an international bestseller, making him a global star. I was introduced to the genius of Stephen Hawking through this book. Hawking showed to me the wonders of the Universe, questions for which we have no answers as of yet, and the cosmic journey through time and space. His unique style of marrying a child’s wonder with a genius’ intellect is simply breathtaking. This book takes us through a joy ride of the cosmos, from the time when the Greeks believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and supported on the back of a giant tortoise, to the present times when we know the Greeks were wrong. He explained the nature of our universe, from the smallest particles which cannot be seen, to the biggest celestial bodies.
In his second book (a collection of scientific articles, lectures and short autobiographical sketches) titled Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, published in 1993, Hawking explained the formation and the dynamics of black holes, as well as putting forth his understanding of other theories, like General and Special Relativity, thermodynamics and Quantum Theory. He talks about the how objects that fall into a black hole may create their own little “baby universes” and how these Universes exist in an “imaginary time” at right angles to real time, with no beginning or end. In this book, he also discusses his motor neurone disease for the first time and how life changed for him after that.
His third book, The Universe in a Nutshell, was published in 2001. It is generally considered a sequel and was created to update the developments in science since his first best-seller A Brief History of Time. In this book too, Hawking adopted a reader-friendly approach to reach out to those who had a basic understanding of science and explained complex ideas such Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and p-branes of supersymmetry and quantum mechanics. The book explored the possibility of a 'Theory of Everything' which can explain seemingly inconceivable concepts, such time travel and the unification of Einsteinian relativity and quantum theory.
Also read on Firstpost: Stephen Hawking in The Big Bang Theory, Simpsons, Star Trek: A brief history of his pop culture appearances
Hawking was a superstar physicist and admired by many, but his popularity among young kids says a lot about his innate childlike curiosity. He wrote many popular children’s science fiction books, such as George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009) and George and the Big Bang (2011), which he co-authored with his daughter Lucy. In 2013, Hawking published My Brief History, a biographical account which is a collection of memories from his childhood in post-war London, up until the time when he earned worldwide praise and became a celebrity.
Hawking’s body of work paved the way for some groundbreaking research and it helped us to better comprehend some of the most complex ideas and principles governing everything. The genius who thought about the stars and the origin of everything is now dead. But the stardust, as the second law of thermodynamics suggest, is back to the place where it belongs — the cosmos.
Salik Khan is the Head of Social Media Communications (Ghalib-in-Chief) at Talk Journalism. He talks about poetry, Physics and Ghalib on Instagram and Twitter at @baawraman