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Astro-physicist's tribute to Stephen Hawking

“He decided he would live, do what he wanted to do and make a contribution – he is an example, a model for other people”

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s ashes are to be interred in Westminster Abbey, beside other great scientists including Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Prof Hawking, who had motor neurone disease, died on March 14, aged 76. Connexion talked to the French-Canadian astro-physicist, Hubert Reeves, who, like Stephen Hawking has dedicated much of his time to explain the mysteries of our universe to the general non-scientific public.

Dr Reeves, 85 has been advisor to Nasa, director of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France (CNRS), winner of the Albert Einstein award and is now president of the environmental association Humanité et Biodiversité.

He said Stephen Hawking will be remembered for two positive roles in his life. “The first one was that he was a very good cosmologist and he made very important contributions to the evolution of the study of black holes. He is one of the most important scientists in this field in this century.

“The second point is related to his health of course. He was a person who was known for his energy, his courage, his will to live and to continue working, despite his problems.

“These are two features, one for the scientists and the specialists and one for the general public, a person who in French we call an ‘icon’, a remarkable person.”

Dr Reeves says he never worked with him, as their centres of interest were close but different but that he often saw him at conferences and did meet him: “I would say we were colleagues. I have been to Cambridge several times and I heard his talks and read his articles. 

“I always followed his work. He was a familiar figure for me.”

He says it is his work on black holes which is so important: “Stephen Hawking said, ‘Black holes ain’t as black as they are painted’ which means that he showed that black holes are not totally closed in on themselves and are capable of emitting information and I would say this was a major contribution to the field of quantum physics.

“This is what I have been following all along. He was not alone in this, but he was certainly one of the main contributors. Not all scientists agreed with him and whether information is destroyed in black holes is still a matter of discussion. Personally I don’t think it is settled yet, but it is an important subject to continue today.”

Prof Hawking predicted that Earth will not survive indefinitely and that the best hope for survival for humans is to leave and find a new planet to live on, which Dr Reeves disagrees with “For me, that is the wrong solution, because if we don’t learn how to live correctly on our planet we will do the same thing outside. We will just transport the problem.

“I don’t believe we know anything about the future. I am worried, but to say that humanity will disappear, to make predictions like this, it is not my way.”

Although Prof Hawking never won a Nobel Prize, Dr Reeves says this was not because of his qualities as a scientist, but because his theories had never been proved: “He could have been a good candidate but most of the people who have the Nobel Prize are people that have made predictions which were eventually confirmed.

“His most important prediction, which was that black holes emit information, has never been proved. We believe it is right but it remains a belief, there is no proof, it may be wrong.”

Dr Reeves is sure Prof Hawking’s passion for science helped him to live as long as he did: “From what I read he was told many years ago that his life would not be long and so he said if I am going to have a short life I will do what I feel like doing, mainly astrophysics, and he prolonged his life by half a century.

“He showed us that vitality helps us to live longer. He decided he would live, do what he wanted to do and make a contribution and in this way I believe he is an example, a model for other people.”

You can read a full interview with Hubert Reeves on a range of subjects from astrophysics to airports in the April issue of The Connexion.

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