An account of everything

Stephen Hawking (b. 1942)
From the big bang to black holes: a short history of time
Cambridge, ca 1985

Newton was the second Lucasian Professor; in 1979, Stephen Hawking became the seventeenth, having been elected FRS in 1974. To explain his work to a wide audience, Hawking began his project to write a book on modern cosmology, one that illustrated its foundations in the historical development of physics. This early typescript draft dates from about 1985, when his working title referred to ‘a short history’, rather than a brief one. When published in 1988, A brief history became a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 10 million copies and remaining in the Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks. In 1993 Anthony Edwards, chairman of the University Library Syndicate, wrote to Hawking asking that he might follow the precedent set by former Lucasian professors, and donate to the Library his manuscript of A brief history. Hawking responded positively within two days.

MS Add.9222, f. 31r, reproduced by kind permission of Professor Stephen Hawking

One of the neutron stars shown to exist as a pulsar could, it follows, acquire even greater mass under its enormous gravitational field; or a really titanic star might explode in a supernova, also resulting in a super-massive object. With sufficient mass, that object’s gravity would overcome even the nuclear forces holding the neutron star from collapse and it would implode to form a black hole, with enough gravitational attraction to prevent even the huge energy of light photons from breaking free from its grasp. Though a concept of modern cosmology following on from the ideas of how heavier and heavier stars developed in terms of quantum physics, even in the 18th century natural philosophers had speculated about a body heavy enough to prevent light escaping its clutches.

By the middle of the 1980s Stephen Hawking was one of the most recognised figures in science. Having graduated in natural sciences from the University of Oxford in 1962, to pursue his doctoral studies he moved to the University of Cambridge and his PhD Properties of expanding universes was approved in the spring of 1966. Taking his doctoral work further and in collaboration with his friend Roger Penrose he explored the concept of the gravitational singularity predicted by general relativity, showing this was not merely a mathematical conclusion but the physical reality of what would be at the heart of this cosmological black hole. Hawking took the idea back to the ultimate source of the singularity in the origin of the Universe in a Big Bang. Working at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge from the late 1960s Hawking enjoyed celebrity amongst scientists from many disciplines. His first book was written on co-authorship with George Ellis and published as The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time in 1973 and in the following year he published a paper in Nature that postulated – in contradiction of everything we then understood about black holes – that some could in fact emit radiation, which has naturally enough become known as Hawking Radiation, and might even explode. Shortly after that publication he was elected a very young Fellow of the Royal Society and then took a sabbatical year at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1979 he was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, the 17th holder of the Chair – Isaac Newton had been the 2nd – and this taken together with the very nature of his abstruse cerebral work, in addition to his progressive physical disability, caused Stephen Hawking to become a widely known scientific celebrity, often being interviewed for the print media and on the radio or TV over the coming decade.

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