Prof. Stephen Hawking’s love-hate relationship with Israel

British astrophysicist Prof. Stephen Hawking apparently had a love-hate relationship with Israel -- the affection from the 1970s until about a decade ago and the disaffection more recently.

March 14, 2018 20:26
3 minute read.
Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, 2006.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

British astrophysicist Prof. Stephen Hawking apparently had a love-hate relationship with Israel – the affection from the 1970s until about a decade ago, and the disaffection more recently.

He visited the country four or five times, even accepting the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics 30 years ago. He disputed Hebrew University physicist Prof. Jacob Bekenstein on whether a black hole can radiate, but in the end the two physicists in the 1970s jointly developed the theory of Bekenstein-Hawking entropy – a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system which is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder.

In 2006, he was guest of honor at a reception by the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.

But in his later years, he was influenced by American linguist, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic and extreme left-wing professor Noam Chomsky, who, though born to an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Philadelphia, was regarded as a fierce anti-Zionist.

It was Chomsky who, because of his support of the Palestinian cause, reportedly persuaded Hawking not to speak at a Jerusalem conference hosted by then-president Shimon Peres.

But Hawking became a household name around the world and in Israel not for his theoretical understanding of black holes and quantum mechanics, or for his popular books A Brief History of Time (1988) and The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). Instead, it was his overcoming of his incredible disability from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – an incurable neurological disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles – that made people interested in him. At 21, he was told he would die within two years, but in fact he died on Wednesday at the age of 76.
Popular physicist Stephen Hawking dies at 76 (REUTERS)

PROF. ASHER Yahalom, Ariel University’s associate dean of the Engineering Faculty, told The Jerusalem Post that he spent time with Hawking at Cambridge University in 2005/2006 and had some other encounters – some electronically – with him, but “I didn’t meet him a lot, because, due to his illness, it was hard to reach him.... He was surrounded by secretaries and assistants, and it was hard for him to communicate, as he was unable to speak for many years.”

Still, said Yahalom, he was “a very interesting human phenomenon because he didn’t surrender to his illness. He overcame it despite his limitations and managed to continue to live, marry [and divorce] twice and have three children. If doctors tell you that you have two years to live, you don’t want to waste your time. He was very focused on one thing. He succeeded because of his disability.”

During a visit to Israel, Hawking said with much humor: “The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away. People want to be photographed with me, but it can be a nuisance when I am in a hurry.”

As for assessing Hawking’s role in physics, Yahalom noted that his groundbreaking theoretical work has allowed for the classification and greater understanding of black holes. He was an excellent cosmologist. But the Israeli professor did not want to compare him to the incomparable Albert Einstein. Hawking contributed much to science, but the journey didn’t begin with him, and it will not end with him. There is lots more to do, but his overcoming his disabilities inspired others.”

Prof. Barak Kol, head of Hebrew University’s Racah Institute of Physics, told the Post that he met Hawking at Stanford University in California 20 years ago and several times since then.

The dispute with Bekenstein on thermodynamics – whether black holes can radiate particles or just suck them in – was well known.

“At first, Hawking opposed this theory, but in 1974 he confirmed it with Bekenstein, and both won the Wolf Prize. This argument led to Hawking’s breakthrough theory on the thermodynamics of black holes.”

Hawking “had a good life, despite everything. His popularity emanates not only from his science but from his image in the wheelchair, able to move only his eyes and communicating with a speech synthesizer. He was like a rock star known in every home,” said Kol. “He smiled at life and maybe even at death. He had a very significant life. The ALS made him famous. I am sure that Cambridge University will memorialize him.”

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