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Home > City Resources > Education > Stephen William Hawking
 Stephen William Hawking  

The physicist who gave the 'String Theory' to the world

"I use God as a metaphor for the laws of nature" - Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking close-upThere cannot be a better example of self-determination, than Stephen William Hawking - the man who challenged and conquered both body and mind to better understand the basic laws that govern the universe; the physicist who gave to the world 'String Theory' unifying quantum theory and the general theory of relativity. Hawking was diagnosed for ALS and Motor Neurone Disease at the age of 21. He strode the road to success with his bestsellers 'A Brief History of Time' and 'Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays.'

The eminent physicist Stephen Hawking Stephen Hawking has worked on the basic laws which govern the universe. With Roger Penrose he showed that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes. These results indicated it was necessary to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory, the other great scientific development of the first half of the 20th Century. One consequence of such a unification was that he theorised that black holes should not be completely black, but should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. Another conjecture is that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time. This would imply that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science. His many publications include The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime with G F R Ellis, General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey, with W Israel, and 300 Years of Gravity, written along with W Israel.

Panelists at the Strings Conference Professor Hawking has twelve honorary degrees, was awarded the CBE in 1982, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1989. He is the recipient of many awards, medals and prizes and is a Fellow of The Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Stephen Hawking continues to combine family life (he has three children and one grandchild), and his research into theoretical physics together with an extensive programme of travel and public lectures.

Mumbaibest had the opportunity to meet Stephen Hawking at the 'Strings 2001,' a major international conference in String Theory at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Since Stephen Hawking was unable to speak given his disability his thoughts were echoed by seven panelists and string theorists, Dr John Schwarz (California Institute of Technology), Dr Ashoke Sen (Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad), Dr David Gross (University of California, Santa Barbara, USA), Dr Edward Witten (California Institute of Technology and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton), Dr Atish Dabolkar (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai), Dr Sunil Mukhi (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai) and Dr Spenta Wadia (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai). Around 300 physicists are participating in String Theory from all over the world and India prides itself on having the largest team working on this exciting frontier in Theoretical Physics.

Why String theory? The world around us obeys laws which have excited the curiosity of human beings since the dawn of civilisation. Objects fall towards the ground. Compass needles point North. Electricity is generated by combing one's hair vigorously. Lightning transmits an electric current. Can we identify the laws governing these phenomena? Do we need a different law for each of these effects, or are they different manifestations of a single underlying principle? "We first understood that the electricity generated by combing one's hair is fundamentally the same as the one present in lighting. So we used the same word for both of them, though the phenomena of crackling hair is very different from lightning," says Dr Sunil Mukhi among the earliest contributors to String Theory from India and recipient of the S S Bhatnagar Prize of the Government of India and a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences.

The impressive edifice of modern physics firmly rests on two foundations: Quantum Theory and the General Theory of Relativity. But these two fundamental theories of modern physics are incompatible with each other. String Theory is the only convincing candidate for a theory that resolves this incompatibility, explains Mukhi. Quantum theory and general relativity each has been experimentally tested in its own domain of applicability, but these two theories are inconsistent with each other. Despite heroic efforts by some of the best minds in the field, this glaring inconsistency remained one of the most important unresolved problems in theoretical physics for over half a century. "String theory is finally revealing to us the glimpses of a more majestic framework that can successfully resolve this contraction and which can combine both quantum mechanics and general relativity in a consistent. I accept String Theory must be the answer to all forces of nature. But we are still not sure how to interpret the answer," says Dr Schwarz. To which Dr Wadia, the first string theorist in India, adds, "Generalisation of Quantum Theory will not be revised. But our concept of geometry will change."

The thirty years of research were not without hurdle. "Science is a tough game and there is always skepticism from colleagues. String Theory has given us a lot of insight into what is happening in nature," says Dr Gross, who is one of the chief architects of the fundamental theory of the strong interactions.

Dr Stephen Hawking concludes to a thunderous applause,"String Theory is not the complete story. The best is yet to come. I use God as a metaphor for the laws of nature."

By: Anupama Vinayak
Photos : Vinayak Prabhu

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