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March 14, 2018 10:18 am

Israeli Scientists Hail Late Stephen Hawking’s Work, Voice Regret Over Stance on Academic Boycott

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

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British physicist Stephen Hawking answers questions during an interview in Orlando, Florida, April 25, 2007. Photo: Reuters / Charles W Luzier / File.

The death of acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 76, has been remarked on by a number of prominent Israeli scientists, who spoke rapturously of his work, while voicing regret over his support for the academic boycott of the Jewish state.

Hawking was admired the world over for his discoveries, most notably the fact that black holes emit radiation, something previously thought impossible. He was also respected for his long battle with the degenerative disease ALS, which resulted in the near complete paralysis of his body.

At first being given three years to live, Hawking survived for over five decades with ALS, traveling the world in a special wheelchair that included a speech synthesizer he could operate with eye movements.

Professor Barak Kol, head of the Hebrew University Physics Department, told the Hebrew news site Ynet about his personal recollections of Hawking.

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“I heard him lecture,” Kol recounted. “We were in the same room together several times but we didn’t converse, because you’d have to wait a long time for each sentence. As a scientist, he was one of the greatest of our time, with his series of discoveries in the field of Einstein’s theory of gravity, black holes, the origin of the universe, and the connection between them and quantum theory.”

He also cited Hawking’s struggle with ALS, saying, “His disease and his struggle with it captured everyone’s imagination. It was amazing to see how in his condition he established a family, wrote books, and always continued to work.”

Kol related a personal anecdote that showed Hawking’s ability to enjoy life despite his disability. While visiting Stanford University “on one occasion we went out, several scientists, to a restaurant in Los Angeles. [Hawking] really loved steak and this time too he ordered steak, which they would put in a blender for him so he could eat it. He usually would listen to the conversations around him because of his difficulty in talking to people, but when he finally did speak, people waited on every word out of his mouth, even if it took time. And on his part, he would choose the right words and try to squeeze as much meaning as possible into every word.”

Professor Haggai Netzer of the Tel Aviv University School of Physics and Astronomy also had a personal acquaintance with Hawking. In 1988, Netzer served as Hawking’s official host when he came to Israel to receive the prestigious Wolf Prize.

“You would have to go with him and guide him everywhere, and deal with his disability, which was a bit complicated,” Netzer said. “He was then a very pleasant and personable man, he asked personal questions and I remember my wife also spoke to him and was impressed with him. Over time, I think he got used to everybody paying attention to everything he said with gaping eyes, but it seemed that in one-on-one conversations he was still as I remember him.”

Both scientists, however, expressed polite disagreement with Hawking’s decision to boycott Israel in the 2000s.

“I thought it was wrong to mix up politics and science because science is universal,” said Kol. “Of course, I also wasn’t happy with a boycott of Israel, it is opposed to the spirit of science and doesn’t help anything. Therefore I was at the top of a letter from Israeli scientists that was sent to him on the issue. We asked him to take it back and we never received a reply.”

Netzer did not sign the letter, but nonetheless stated, “I felt bad about the boycott. Like a lot of scientists I think we have to separate science from politics, but I continued to admire [Hawking] and judge him according to his discoveries.”

Ironically, despite Hawking’s boycott support, it was in fact due in part to an Israeli scientist that Hawking would achieve the breakthrough that brought him fame.

According to The New York Times, Hawking became involved in the 1970s in a feud with Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein, then a graduate student at Princeton. Bekenstein theorized that black holes had entropy. Hawking rejected this theory, later writing, “I was very down on Bekenstein.”

Hawking attempted to use quantum physics to disprove Bekenstein’s claims, but the calculations, which Hawking did entirely in his head, “indicated to his surprise that particles and radiation were spewing out of black holes. Dr. Hawking became convinced that his calculation was correct when he realized that the outgoing radiation would have a thermal spectrum characteristic of the heat radiated by any warm body, from a star to a fevered forehead. Dr. Bekenstein had been right.”

This discovery was revolutionary and the black hole emissions came to be called “Bekenstein-Hawking radiation.”

Bekenstein went on to become a professor of physics at Hebrew University. While he never achieved the same level of worldwide recognition as Hawking did, a colleague described Bekenstein upon his death in 2015 as “one of the very few giants in the field of quantum gravity.”

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