Quirks & Quarks

Hawking's science, thoughts on God, and the formula for his tombstone

Dr. Don Page from the University of Alberta describes what it was like to work with Prof. Hawking.
Professor Stephen Hawking will be remembered for his many scientific contributions, but also for his humour. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Hawking's science

Over the years, many have had the privilege of working closely with Professor Stephen Hawking as he's developed his theories about our Universe. Dr. Don Page is one of those people. He's a physicist at the University of Alberta. And he did his postdoc under Professor Hawking at the University of Cambridge many decades ago. 

Dr. Page describes what he sees as Prof. Hawking's biggest contributions to science - in shedding light on the boundary conditions of our universe and on the mysterious nature of black holes. 

"I think discovering the black hole evaporation will be very, very important," says Dr. Page. "There was another thing that he and James Hartle developed, which is a proposal for the quantum state of the universe. I think it's too premature for that to be correct in details, but basically, they were the first people to point out that science could perhaps not only describe how the universe evolves, how it changes from one time to another, but also give the conditions that it actually has at one time, the so-called, 'boundary conditions.' Or if it's the beginning of the universe, the 'initial conditions.'"

(Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Hawking's thoughts on God

As an Christian himself, Dr. Page got some unique insight into Prof. Hawking's thoughts on theology. At times, Prof. Hawking's observations were quite humourous. 

"I lived with the Hawkings and helped Stephen get up in the morning and get dressed in the morning. And also, as a Christian, I would read my Bible usually before and a lot of times at breakfast I would tell Stephen some of the things I'd read. And I was telling him, from Matthew, for example, about the occasion when Jesus cast the evil spirits of a deranged man into the swine. And the swine went off into the sea and Stephen said, 'Well the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals wouldn't like that story, would they?'"

When it came to Prof. Hawking's thoughts on God, Dr. Page says, "He didn't really believe in a personal God. I remember once when I gave some philosophical argument for the existence of God, he said, 'Yes, but there's a long ways from that to the Judeo-Christian God.'" 

Hawking's most famous formula for his tombstone

Back in 2002, Prof. Hawking said that when he dies, he'd like his most famous formula describing entropy around black holes engraved on his tombstone. 

Professor Hawking has said he'd like to have this formula engraved on his tombstone. (wikimedia)

"This [formula] was, of course, related to the discovery of Hawking radiation, which also showed exactly how much entropy a black hole has," says Dr. Page. "So in a sense, it's uniting relativity, which involves speeds close to the speed of light. It involves strong gravitational fields, which involves general relativity. And it involves quantum mechanics. And it involves thermodynamics. So it's a big partial unification of many of these many different areas of physics. You know it's a very beautiful formula and certainly befitting being commemorated on his tombstone."

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy devours a snack. (NASA/CXC/A.Hobart)