Stephen Hawking (RIP) Explains His Revolutionary Theory of Black Holes with the Help of Chalkboard Animations

Stephen Hawk­ing died last night at age of 76. I can think of no bet­ter, brief social media trib­ute than that from the @thetweetofgod: “It’s only been a few hours and Stephen Hawk­ing already math­e­mat­i­cal­ly proved, to My face, that I don’t exist.” Hawk­ing was an athe­ist, but he didn’t claim to have elim­i­nat­ed the idea with pure math­e­mat­ics. But if he had, it would have been bril­liant­ly ele­gant, even—as he  used the phrase in his pop­u­lar 1988 cos­mol­o­gy A Brief His­to­ry of Time—to a the­o­ret­i­cal “mind of God.”

Hawk­ing him­self used the word “ele­gant,” with mod­esty, to describe his dis­cov­ery that “gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty can be com­bined with quan­tum the­o­ry,” that is, “if one replaces ordi­nary time with so-called imag­i­nary time.” In the best­selling A Brief His­to­ry of Time, he described how one might pos­si­bly rec­on­cile the two. His search for this “Grand Uni­fied The­o­ry of Every­thing,” writes his edi­tor Peter Guz­zar­di, rep­re­sent­ed “the quest for the holy grail of science—one the­o­ry that could unite two sep­a­rate fields that worked indi­vid­u­al­ly but whol­ly inde­pen­dent­ly of each oth­er.”

The physi­cist had to help Guz­zar­di trans­late rar­i­fied con­cepts into read­able prose for book­buy­ers at “drug­stores, super­mar­kets, and air­port shops.” But this is not to say A Brief His­to­ry of Time is an easy read. (In the midst of that process, Hawk­ing also had to learn how to trans­late his own thoughts again, as a tra­cheoto­my end­ed his speech, and he tran­si­tioned to the com­put­er devices we came to know as his only voice.) Most who read Hawking’s book, or just skimmed it, might remem­ber it for its take on the big bang. It’s an aspect of his the­o­ry that piqued the usu­al cre­ation­ist sus­pects, and thus gen­er­at­ed innu­mer­able head­lines.

But it was the oth­er term in Hawking’s sub­ti­tle, “from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” that real­ly occu­pied the cen­tral place in his exten­sive body of less acces­si­ble sci­en­tif­ic work. He wrote his the­sis on the expand­ing uni­verse, but gave his final lec­tures on black holes. The dis­cov­er­ies in Hawk­ing’s cos­mol­o­gy came from his inten­sive focus on black holes, begin­ning in 1970 with his inno­va­tion of the sec­ond law of black hole dynam­ics and con­tin­u­ing through ground­break­ing work in the mid-70s that his for­mer dis­ser­ta­tion advi­sor, emi­nent physi­cist Den­nis Scia­ma, pro­nounced “a new rev­o­lu­tion in our under­stand­ing.”

Hawk­ing con­tin­ued to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the­o­ret­i­cal physics through the study of black holes into the last years of his life. In Jan­u­ary 2016, he pub­lished a paper on called “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” propos­ing “a pos­si­ble solu­tion to his black hole infor­ma­tion para­dox,” as Fiona Mac­Don­ald writes at Sci­ence Alert. Hawking’s final con­tri­bu­tions show that black holes have what he calls “soft hair” around them—or waves of zero-ener­gy par­ti­cles. Con­trary to his pre­vi­ous con­clu­sion that noth­ing can escape from a black hole, Hawk­ing believed that this quan­tum “hair” could store infor­ma­tion pre­vi­ous­ly thought lost for­ev­er.

Hawk­ing fol­lowed up these intrigu­ing, but excep­tion­al­ly dense, find­ings with a much more approach­able text, his talks for the BBC’s Rei­th Lec­tures, which artist Andrew Park illus­trat­ed with the chalk­board draw­ings you see above. The first talk, “Do Black Holes Have No Hair?” walks us briskly through the for­ma­tion of black holes and the big names in black hole sci­ence before mov­ing on to the heavy quan­tum the­o­ry. The sec­ond talk con­tin­ues to sketch its way through the the­o­ry, using strik­ing metaphors and wit­ti­cisms to get the point across.

Hawk­ing’s expla­na­tions of phe­nom­e­na are as pro­found, verg­ing on mys­ti­cal, as they are thor­ough. He doesn’t for­get the human dimen­sion or the emo­tion­al res­o­nance of sci­ence, occa­sion­al­ly sug­gest­ing metaphysical—or meta-psychological—implications. Thanks in part to his work, we first thought of black holes as nihilis­tic voids from which noth­ing could escape. He left us, how­ev­er with a rad­i­cal new view, which he sums up cheer­ful­ly as “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, There’s a way out.” Or, even more Zen-like, as he pro­claimed in a 2014 paper, “there are no black holes.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. The­sis, “Prop­er­ties of Expand­ing Uni­vers­es,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Watch A Brief His­to­ry of Time, Errol Mor­ris’ Film About the Life & Work of Stephen Hawk­ing

The Big Ideas of Stephen Hawk­ing Explained with Sim­ple Ani­ma­tion

Free Online Physics Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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