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Remembering Stephen Hawking: When the scientist with a zest for life danced on India tour

A clutch of Indian astrophysicists and mathematicians who interacted with Stephen Hawking say that he showed a remarkable zest for life despite a degenerative motor-neuron disease.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2018 14:15 IST
Snehal Fernandes
Snehal Fernandes
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
Stephen Hawking,Tributes,Astrophysicist
Stephen Hawking at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in January 2001.(HT FILE PHOTO)

Astrophysicist and mathematician SM Chitre is among very few Indian scientists who saw British physicist Stephen Hawking on his feet during their student days at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Chitre, 82, who retired from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 2001, describes Hawking as his “office mate” between 1962 and 1963 when they were doing their PhD at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge.

Though their area of research was different, having offices next door gave them a chance to have “conversations that were delightful and stimulating”, said Chitre.

“He taught me to play croquet,” said Professor Chitre who was conferred a Padma Bhushan in 2012. “A friend is no more.”

Hawking died Wednesday at his home in Cambridge at the age of 76.

The last time Chitre saw Hawking standing was in July 1963 when he was leaving Cambridge after completing his PhD to visit his parents in India. “I saw him strong-built and sturdy, climbing two floors where our offices were housed. Next I saw him on a wheelchair in 1965 during a conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in London,” said Chitre. “It felt terrible to see him on a wheelchair, emaciated.”

Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, an Indian astrophysicist, who was a contemporary of Hawking as a PhD scholar at Cambridge, believes one of his biggest breakthroughs came at 32, when along with Jacob Bekenstein, he showed that black holes, where gravitational force is so strong that not even light can pass, leak radiation and in doing so drain energy and die out.

“People thought this was strange. Black holes are not supposed to radiate, rather they absorb everything. Hawking was able to show that once you put quantum mechanics into it is not true,” Narlikar said.

The progression of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) meant that Hawking lost almost all mobility over time beyond bare movement of his fingers and facial muscles.

“He was forced to think with his brain but could not print or type,” Narlikar said. “That led him to be very effective in doing calculations that none of us could understand, that eventually he could explain through his students.”

It was on his personal mobility device that Hawking visited India only once for 16 days in 2001. In Mumbai, he delivered a public lecture titled ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’ and ‘Predicting the Future: From Astrology to Black Holes.’

As a postgraduate student in physics at IIT-Bombay, Aniket Sule, now a faculty member at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education was among the scores of students who attended the lecture at TIFR.

“Hawking was more than just about his science publications. Unlike many scientists, he was an effective science communicator who inspired millions of people across the world,” said Sule

Sunil Mukhi, physics professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, recalled Hawking’s answer to the famous question of whether he believed in God. Mukhi quotes Hawking as saying, “I view god as a metaphor for the laws of nature.”

Mukhi added, “Hawking’s theories from the 70s-80s still influence work today. He has given us a whole new way of looking at gravitational wave theory without changing Albert Einstein’s theory.”

“While in Mumbai, he visited the Kamala Nehru Park, the TIFR conference banquet celebrated his 59th birthday. I vividly remember his dance ... swirling his chair around and back and forth ... he had a zest for life!” said Spenta R Wadia, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, TIFR.

During the same India visit, Hawking described astrology as bunkum. In his address at the Siri Fort in Delhi called ‘From Astrology to Blackholes’, Hawking said, “When it was discovered that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, astrology became impossible.”

(With inputs from Malavika Vyawahare)

First Published: Mar 14, 2018 20:34 IST