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Physics giant Stephen Hawking dead at age 76

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Lego Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, who uncovered the mysteries of black holes and with A Brief History of Time did more than anyone to popularize science since the late Carl Sagan, has died at his home in Cambridge at age 76. From an obituary in The Guardian:

Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first- and second-class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

From Dennis Overbye’s obit in the NY Times:

He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

That work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when Dr. Hawking set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic reality, to black holes. In a long and daunting calculation, Dr. Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.

Nobody, including Dr. Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”

That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?,” is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.

The discovery of Hawking radiation, as it is known, turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction.

“You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Dr. Hawking said in an interview in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it.

“On the other hand,” he added, “if we send someone off to jump into a black hole, neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.”

Dennis W. Sciama, a cosmologist and Dr. Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”

Roger Penrose, the eminent mathematician and physicist who collaborated with Hawking on discoveries related to black holes and the genesis of the universe, wrote a lengthy scientific obituary for Hawking in The Guardian.

Following his work in this area, Hawking established a number of important results about black holes, such as an argument for its event horizon (its bounding surface) having to have the topology of a sphere. In collaboration with Carter and James Bardeen, in work published in 1973, he established some remarkable analogies between the behaviour of black holes and the basic laws of thermodynamics, where the horizon’s surface area and its surface gravity were shown to be analogous, respectively, to the thermodynamic quantities of entropy and temperature. It would be fair to say that in his highly active period leading up to this work, Hawking’s research in classical general relativity was the best anywhere in the world at that time.

And then there was that time Hawking threw a party for time travellers but didn’t advertise it until after the party was over (to ensure only visitors from the future would show up).

Tonight is perhaps a good night to watch Errol Morris’ superb documentary on Hawking (with a wonderful Philip Glass soundtrack) or build a version of Hawking out of Lego.

A tour of our solar system’s eclipses

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2017

In a meditative video for the NY Times, Dennis Overbye takes us on a tour of eclipses that happen in our solar system and beyond.

On the 21st day of August, 2017, the moon will slide between the Earth and the sun, painting a swath of darkness across North America. The Great American Solar Eclipse. An exercise in cosmic geometry. A reminder that we live on one sphere among many, all moving to the laws of Kepler, Newton and Einstein.

Humans have many more vantage points from which to observe solar eclipses than when the last solar eclipse occurred in the US in 1979. I had no idea that the Mars rovers had caught partial solar eclipses on Mars…so cool. (via @jossfong)

Supernova reruns

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2015

Astronomers have been able to view the same supernova in a distant part of the Universe several times due to the gravitational lensing effect of a cluster of galaxies in-between here and there. From Dennis Overbye in the NY Times:

Supernovas are among the most violent and rare events in the universe, occurring perhaps once per century in a typical galaxy. They outshine entire galaxies, spewing elemental particles like oxygen and gold out into space to form the foundations of new worlds, and leaving behind crushed remnants called neutron stars or black holes.

Because of the galaxy cluster standing between this star and the Hubble, “basically, we got to see the supernova four times,” Dr. Kelly said. And the explosion is expected to appear again in another part of the sky in the next 10 years. Timing the delays between its appearances, he explained, will allow astronomers to refine measurements of how fast the universe is expanding and to map the mysterious dark matter that supplies the bulk of the mass and gravitational oomph of the universe.

Scientists expect the supernova to reappear in the next few years. Gravitational lensing was predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity and as Overbye writes, “the heavens continue to light candles for Albert Einstein.”