The Theory of Everything: Hawking’s View on the Universe and Humanity

by Danielle Hu

1963. Cambridge University. Brown and blue eyes find each other’s gaze from across the room. She studies Medieval Literature; he studies Theoretical Physics. She is a devout Christian; he is a staunch atheist. But no matter—they are instantly drawn to each other.

So begins the love story of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, the subject of the recent drama biopic The Theory of Everything.

But, this isn’t just a simple love story. It is also a story of science, tragedy and triumph.

Hawking, now a world-famous physicist whom many regard as one of the world’s most brilliant minds, was born in January 1942 in Oxford, England. In 1963, at twenty-one years old—not long after he met and fell in love with Jane Wilde—he was diagnosed with a rare early-onset form of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. This progressive neurodegenerative disorder destroyed Hawking’s motor neurons, slowly diminishing his ability to walk, swallow and eventually breathe. Today, Hawking is wheelchair-bound and relies on a speaking device and its synthetic voice to speak for him.

As the film depicts, Hawking asked his doctor if the illness would affect his brain in any way.

The answer, thankfully, was no.

In 1966, three years following his diagnosis, Hawking received his Ph.D. at Cambridge with his thesis on space-time singularity. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theory on black holes—that matter gets “sucked into” a singular location at the black hole’s center—Hawking applied the concept to the whole universe. He theorized that if one traced time backwards to a rather inconceivable “beginning of time,” our entire cosmology would have begun at one single point. Hawking termed this theory the “Big Bang singularity.”

In 1973, Hawking began studying quantum mechanics and quantum gravity—a branch of theoretical physics which views energy and matter as behaving like particles or waves—in relation to black holes. He developed a theory called “Hawking radiation” which revolved around the idea (and the mathematical proof) that black holes are not entirely “all black,” as was the widely accepted idea at the time.

Instead, Hawking argued that black holes continually emit electromagnetic radiation. Black holes, as most people probably already know, have an intense gravitational field at its center called the event horizon that sucks objects in. Anything sucked in is supposed to exit the universe forever.

In the case of Hawking radiation, a particle gets sucked in at the event horizon. This particle, though, as part of quantum theory, has an antiparticle that gets ejected in the opposite direction. To the distant observer, it would appear that this ejected particle is emitted from the black hole. As it is emitted, the black hole loses the mass of the particle that got sucked in. Hence, every time a black hole sucks a piece of matter in, it loses a particle of mass meaning the black hole is slowly—particle by particle—decaying or evaporating away. Eventually, will black holes evaporate into nothing and disappear themselves? The question is intriguing, yet still unanswered.

In 1983, further expanding upon his work in quantum mechanics, Hawking proposed a new theory to displace his earlier Big Bang singularity model: the “No Boundary” model. Picture the Earth. The Earth is a sphere, which means it has sharp edges; all the lines on its surface (the coordinates) meet and begin at the same places. The Earth’s surface therefore has finite area but exists as a plane with no boundary. Hawking likens the universe to the surface of the Earth. In this kind of universe, rather than start from a single point in time—as the singularity model had indicated—the universe has no beginning or end, no creation or destruction. It just exists. Hawking and his colleagues called this dimension “imaginary time.”

Of course, to fully understand the depth of these theories one would need a doctorate in applied mathematics and theoretical physics. But you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to see that their basic implications are, well, cool. After all, there’s a reason why A Brief History of Time, Hawking’s pop science book on cosmology, was a record-breaking bestseller. Scientists and the general public alike yearn to know: why are we here? How did we come to be? And perhaps the most pondered question of all – did God put us here?

There is an innate, utterly human desire to investigate the truth, and that is what drives science. There is also a natural desire to believe that we exist for a reason, and that is what gives rise to religion. However, oftentimes, it seems that religion and science contradict each other.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. At one point in their marriage, Jane, reading from Hawking’s writing, arrived at the conclusion that his theorems allow possibility for God. Hawking reminded her that this did not indicate he acknowledged God. Jane shot him a wry grin. “Let me have this moment,” she said.

This year on January 8, Stephen Hawking turned 72 years old, beating the odds of his ALS illness by far. To date, Hawking has three children, three grandchildren, a hefty list of academic accomplishments, and no plans to retire from his career anytime soon. There is simply no easy answer for why Hawking has surpassed the two-year expected survival his doctors first gave him upon diagnosis more than fifty years ago. In this way, Stephen Hawking is a living testament to the question, “Can science explain all of life?” Or are some mysteries in the universe just unanswerable?

I imagine Dr. Hawking’s answer to these questions would be the following: maybe not, but science will always continue to try. The pursuit of knowledge, in itself, is something valuable and priceless.

For a film about a paralyzed physicist, the story of The Theory of Everything turns out to be beautifully uplifting. It’s ultimately a story of hope, of strength in the face of defeat, of love and light in life outshining darkness and despair. At a 2006 lecture on Hawking’s bestseller, a member of the audience asked Hawking about his own personal philosophy, as he has no religion. Hawking smiled gently, and replied:

“However bad life may seem, while there is life, there is hope.”