Stephen Hawking: tribute to an inspirational researcher
On Wednesday, March 14, 2018, the scientific community lost one of its most eminent members. Theoretical physicist and lover of the cosmos, his research on black holes and work on the popularization of science have inspired entire careers, particularly for researchers at École Polytechnique.
Reflecting on their memories of the great man, two researchers wished to express how the work of Stephen Hawking contributed to their scientific career.
Martin Genet, lecturer at the Solid Mechanics Laboratory (LMS) and member of the M3DISIM research team directed in collaboration with Inria, shares his memories:
"I was just saying to my colleagues that A Brief History of Time is undoubtedly one of the most important books I have ever read. I was in my second-last year of high school, reading about the history of physics for the first time. In the book, I (re)discovered not only the major ideas that revolutionized our understanding of the world, and thereby our civilization, but also the world of science where these ideas were formulated, studied, criticized and replaced. I suddenly realized that this was the world where wanted to belong.
After that, I reread A Brief History of Time on several other occasions. I remember in particular reading it during a trip to the Greek Cyclades, between higher and specialized math classes, as well as during dimly lamplit nights. What a joy! I thank Stephen Hawking for these wonderful memories."
Daniel Suchet (Year of Entry: 2008) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Physics of Interfaces and Thin Films (LPICM) and is supported by the ANR Pistol industrial chair. He recounts:
"Fascinated by the starry sky above, I read Kip Thorne’s book Black Holes and Time Warps (Nobel Prize for Physics, 2017) when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.
In the middle of a paragraph about two different physics explanations, Thorne recalls a scientific disagreement he had with Stephen Hawking back in 1974. He wondered whether Cygnus-X, a newly discovered celestial object that was found to emit x-rays, was concealing a black hole.
Thorne thought it was, but Hawking did not. The two men simply settled their dispute using science: they made a bet and both parties signed a paper, stating that he who lost would pay for the winner’s favorite magazine subscription.
Fifteen years later, after a black hole was identified near Cygnus-X, Hawking took advantage during a business trip from Thorne to invite him into his office (because imagine how much the shipping would cost!) to sign the contract recognizing his defeat. In my discovery of the world physics, this story has always emphasized for me the importance of humor alongside fundamental concepts. Hawking kept this fierce sense of humor all throughout his life, as displayed during his appearance on Last Week Tonight.
The presenter says: 'You’ve stated that you believe there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean that there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?'
Hawking responds: 'Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny.'"