To boldly go: my life in physics

By Stephen Hawkin

I did my first degree in Oxford. In my final examination, I was asked about my future plans. I replied:

“If you give me a first class degree, I will go to Cambridge. If I only get a second, I will stay in Oxford.” They gave me a first.

I arrived in Cambridge as a graduate student, in October 1962. I had applied to work with Fred Hoyle, the principal defender of the steady state theory of cosmology, an alternative to the big bang theory. Hoyle was the most famous British astronomer of the time.

I say astronomer because cosmology was at that time hardly recognized as a legitimate field, yet that was where I wanted to do my research, inspired by having been on a summer course with Hoyle’s student, Jayant Narlikar.

However, Hoyle had enough students already so, to my great disappointment, I was assigned to Dennis Sciama, of whom I had not heard.

BUT IT WAS PROBABLY for the best. Hoyle was away a lot, seldom in the department, and I wouldn’t have had much of his attention. Sciama, on the other hand, was usually around and ready to talk. I didn’t agree with many of his ideas, particularly on Mach’s principle, but that stimulated me to develop my own picture.

When I began research, the two areas that seemed exciting were cosmology and elementary particle physics. Elementary particle physics was the active, rapidly changing field that attracted most of the best minds, while cosmology and general relativity were stuck where they had been in the 1930s.

Richard Feynman has given an amusing account of attending the conference on general relativity and gravitation, in Warsaw in 1962.

In a letter to his wife he said, “I am not getting anything out of the meeting. I am learning nothing. Because there are no experiments, this field is not an active one, so few of the best men are doing work in it. The result is that there are hosts of dopes here and it is not good for my blood pressure. Remind me not to come to any more gravity conferences!”

Of course, I wasn’t aware of all this when I began my research. But I felt that elementary particle physics at that time was too like botany. Quantum electrodynamics, the theory of light and electrons that governs chemistry and the structure of atoms, had been worked out completely in the 1940s and 1950s

Read more here To boldly go: my life in physics | COSMOS magazine.

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