In his May 21 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “Celebrating Stephen Hawking: His Amazing Life and Scientific Work,” renowned astronomer Andrew Fraknoi claimed that Hawking more than any modern scientist helped open the window of the cosmos and enabled people to understand what a complicated and amazing neighborhood we on Earth live in.
Fraknoi, chairman emeritus of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College, was named Professor of the Year for the state of California in 2007. He appears regularly on radio and television and has written textbooks in his field and two children’s books. The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him, Asteroid Fraknoi.
According to Fraknoi, Hawking, known to many from the recent film “The Theory of Everything,” was an astounding intellect. Born in 1942 in England, he studied physics at the University of Oxford. Very soon he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hawking died in 2018 at the age of 76, having greatly exceeded the disease’s life predictions, Fraknoi said. More important, Fraknoi believes that Hawking’s discoveries in the cosmos are as important as those of Galileo.
Fraknoi spoke of the discoveries of Albert Einstein and his work on the theory of gravity. He discussed black holes and the belief that a black hole is a warp in the universe. Einstein believed that once in a black hole, nothing can escape, because in the hole all straight lines become circles. Black holes contain many millions of stars and planets.
Hawking went further, observing that the fabric of space is stretching and the universe is expanding. All galaxies are expanding. Hawking observed that there is no limit to the size of a black hole, but sometimes a stretch in the hole can permit the escape of something in it. And he found that some black holes can dissolve, so some stars and planets can get out of the hole. Hawking discovered that at the subatomic level, things that are not common sense can happen. Fraknoi added that Hawking discovered that chance rules in the subatomic world.
Hawking led the way from the world of very big to the world of very small. His discoveries, Fraknoi said, are an enormous step into our understanding of the universe.
Fraknoi noted that Hawking received many honors and prizes, including the Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama. He declined a knighthood. He had a great ambition to go into space and was offered the opportunity to take a zero-gravity flight, which he loved. Hawking was whimsical, Fraknoi said, and had a great sense of humor. He had three children and was married several times.
Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Membership is open to all. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.