Chemistry and Physics

Stephen Hawking: A Tribute

This new Hubble image is centred on NGC 5793, a spiral galaxy over 150 million light-years away in the constellation of Libra. This galaxy has two particularly striking features: a beautiful dust lane and an intensely bright centre — much brighter than that of our own galaxy, or indeed those of most spiral galaxies we observe. NGC 5793 is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have incredibly luminous centres that are thought to be caused by hungry supermassive black holes — black holes that can be billions of times the size of the Sun — that pull in and devour gas and dust from their surroundings. This galaxy is of great interest to astronomers for many reasons. For one, it appears to house objects known as masers. Whereas lasers emit visible light, masers emit microwave radiation [1]. Naturally occurring masers, like those observed in NGC 5793, can tell us a lot about their environment; we see these kinds of masers in areas where stars are forming. In NGC 5793 there are also intense mega-masers, which are thousands of times more luminous than the Sun. A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt. Notes: [1] This name originates from the acronym Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Maser emission is caused by particles that absorb energy from their surroundings and then re-emit this in the microwave part of the spectrum.

A wise, ageing man once said, “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” This year, a year in which the ramifications and messages of that quotation could not ring truer, that wise, ageing man passed away at the age of seventy-six.

Stephen Hawking was an inspiration to all. Described by his peers as a “colossal mind and wonderful spirit” as well as having a “wickedly funny sense of humour”, Hawking was both the greatest physicist of our time and an immense role model for those with disability.

Because, of course, things could have been so different for the acclaimed scientist. At the age of twenty-one, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and the outlook was bleak: two years to live at best, and a life confined to a wheelchair that contrasted with the partying and chaos of university life. But Hawking outlived that two years by over half a century, and showed the world that being in a wheelchair did not make you confined.

“Stephen Hawking was an inspiration to all”

Born on the 8th of January 1942, Hawking’s early education occurred in St Alban’s, before his university life took him to first Oxford and then Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that he was diagnosed with the aforementioned disease, but this did not hold him back. The first of his many contributions to science soon followed, such as his collaboration with the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose (from which developed the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems), and the theoretical proposal of Hawking radiation.

Hawking radiation proved revolutionary in how the scientific community viewed black holes – it proposed black hole evaporation for the first time. This revolved around the concept of a pair of subatomic particles (one being of positive mass, and one being of a negative mass) coming into existence momentarily and colliding, dissipating from existence as they destroy each other just after.

When this occurs in the context of a black hole, the positively massed particles have just enough energy to escape the black hole, and the negatively massed particles fall into it. What happens is the negatively massed particles decrease the mass and energy of the black hole, and the positively massed particles are emitted as radiation. The eventual conclusion of this is the black hole becoming so small and having so much pent up energy that it is released in an explosion, and this newfound knowledge helped better physicists wider understanding of the universe itself.

“black hole becoming so small and having so much pent up energy that it is released in an explosion”

Hawking achieved financial success and greater public recognition with his famed and acclaimed book A Brief History of Time. It sold millions of copies and held a spot on the Sunday Times best-seller list for over 5 years, and made understanding the universe more accessible to the general public than it had ever been before.

As time went by, Hawking’s condition worsened as his disease progressed, and he eventually lost the ability to speak, employing a speech generator with a now-iconic voice to help finish A Brief History of Time, and for the subsequent years of his life.

In more recent years Hawking became something of a cultural icon. He became arguably both the most famous scientist and disabled person in the world, and he raised an immense amount of awareness for motor neurone disease as a consequence of his fame. He made appearances across all aspects of popular culture, famously in The Simpsons and in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking himself.

“the most famous scientist and disabled person in the world”

The scientist’s passing this year produced an immense outpouring of praise and respect from across the globe, and that only goes to show the true extent of what this man achieved. His legacy, however, will not end with his death. His contributions to science will ensure his name will be remembered for generations to come, and he is one of the favourites to be chosen as the face of the new £50 note. Who could be more deserving than this humble, humorous and highly intellectual titan of the scientific world?


Note if you seek to support research into motor neurone disease, then you can visit or in order to find out more or donate.

Joe Paternoster

Articles Used:

Featured image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

Article image courtesy of Renegade98 via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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