While most people were enjoying pie during Pi Day, Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, died peacefully early Wednesday, March 14, surrounded by his family and his loved ones in his home in Cambridge. He was 76 years old. In a public statement, his children honoured Hawking’s legacy as a great scientist who inspired the world while also praising his courage and perseverance.
When Hawking was 22, he was diagnosed with ALS and was only given two years to live. The disease left his body paralyzed and made him use a voice synthesizer later in his life as his only method of communication. He was completely dependent on others for completing the most basic tasks in daily life. Yet, despite these setbacks, Hawking published many books including A Brief History of Time, which sold more than ten million copies.
One of his greatest accomplishments was connecting the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe started and how it will end. He also discovered that black holes emit “Hawking radiation” (named after himself) and that black holes will eventually fade away. These were just some of his contributions to the fields of physics and astronomy.
Stephen Hawking has left a great legacy here in Waterloo. In 2012, he visited the university and attended the opening of the newly built Quantum Nano Centre as a ribbon cutter and guest speaker. He was cheered on by a large crowd as he entered the newly constructed building. During the opening of the Quantum Nano Centre, he recalls in his speech how he felt Waterloo was a special place for him and praised “its collaborative culture; its research excellence; its philanthropic visionaries; and its leadership in post-secondary education.” He visited the university on a regular basis from 2008 to 2010 and gave a televised lecture on the education channel TVO in 2010.
The former executive director of the Institute of Quantum Computing, Raymond LaFlamme, was Hawking’s PhD student at the University of Cambridge. LaFlamme helped discover, through his calculations, that time does not reverse, an idea contrary to Hawking’s theories. Hawking eventually gave LaFlamme a personal copy of A Brief History of Time, with a personalized inscription stating that LaFlamme “showed [Hawking] that the arrow of time is not a boomerang.” During Hawking’s visit, LaFlamme gave Hawking a boomerang, as a gift for his final visit to the university.
Stephen Hawking inspired many in his life through his contributions to the scientific community even though he struggled through his disability for most of his life. In addition, he has a special place in the University’s history as a guest lecturer and the one who considered Waterloo as a special place for innovation. On Pi Day, the world truly lost an icon.