How far behind would we be in physics and astronomy if Stephen Hawking never lived?
I don’t want to sound disrespectful to a great physicist and someone who lived against the odds and had a very successful career as a physicist and populariser of science.
However, for perspective, over my career in physics, I never encountered any work by Stephen Hawking, even though I studied and worked in quantum physics related areas.
In contrast, one cannot study physics and not encounter the myriad contributions of Einstein littered throughout many different fields outside of relativity theory. Although that’s hardly a fair comparison.
If I were to compare to say Feynman, then I would say that Hawking’s contribution is less well known, because most students at least learn about Feynman’s path integral formulation of quantum mechanics and Feynman diagrams.
Another great was John Wheeler. Once more, Wheeler seems to pop up throughout quantum mechanics, quantum information, electrodynamics and cosmology. I would rate Wheeler’s influence on physics as significant. Wheeler had so many unique and interesting ideas.
In fairness, I never studied astrophysics, where Hawking may be mentioned. I did study general relativity, but the course never included any of Hawking’s work on black holes.
Overall, I’d rate Hawking as an important scientist who also popularised physics and whose voice and opinions were heard around the world. He had the opportunity to speak out on matters and have people listen to him. His credentials as a physicist were impressive, but not so much that he overshadowed his contemporaries. He made many important contributions to the interaction of quantum mechanics and general relativity and got to name the as yet untested phenomenon of Hawking radiation. He also wrote a best selling book on the nature of time. By any measure he had a stellar career. The fact that he achieved all of that while being profoundly disabled is quite frankly phenomenal!
RIP Stephen Hawking.
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Do you think Stephen Hawking was a genius? Did you read any of his works?
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