Did death cheat Stephen Hawking of a Nobel Prize?
When the iconic physicist died on March 14, 2018, data was already in hand that could confirm an ominous and far-reaching prediction he had made more than four decades before. Dr. Hawking had posited that black holes, those maws of gravitational doom, could only grow larger, never smaller — swallowing information as they went and so threatening our ability to trace the history of the universe.
That data was obtained in 2015 when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, recorded signals from two massive black holes that had collided and created an even more massive black hole.
Dr. Hawking’s prediction was a first crucial step in a series of insights about black holes that have transformed modern physics. At stake is whether Einsteinian gravity, which shapes the larger universe, plays by the same rules as quantum mechanics, the paradoxical rules that prevail inside the atom.
A confirmation of Dr. Hawking’s prediction was published this summer in Physical Review Letters. A team led by Maximiliano Isi, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues had spent years digging into the details of the LIGO results, and in July they finally announced that Dr. Hawking was right, at least for this particular black hole collision.
“It’s an exciting test because it’s a long-desired result that cannot be achieved in a lab on Earth,” Matthew Giesler, a researcher at Cornell University and part of Dr. Isi’s team, said in an email. “This test required studying the merger of two black holes over a billion light years away and simply could not be accomplished without LIGO and its unprecedented detectors.”
Nobody claims to know the mind of the Nobel Prize committee, and the names of people nominated for the prize are held secret for another 50 years. But many scientists agree that Dr. Isi’s confirmation of Dr. Hawking’s prediction could have made Dr. Hawking — and his co-authors on a definitive paper about it — eligible for a Nobel Prize.
But the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Dr. Isi’s result came too late.
Nobel Prize week returned on Monday, when certain scientists hope for a phone call anointing them as laureates and summoning them to a lavish ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10. (This year, because of the pandemic, the prizes will be handed out in the winners’ home countries.)
Dr. Hawking, arguably one of the most celebrated and honored researchers, never won a Nobel and now never will. His story is a reminder of how the ultimate prestige award is subject to the fickleness of fate.
The dumbing of the universe
The story begins in 1970, as Dr. Hawking was getting ready for bed one evening — an arduous task for a man already half paralyzed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He had been thinking about black holes — objects with gravity so strong that not even light can escape them, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. They are portholes to infinity.
Every black hole is surrounded by an event horizon, an invisible bubble marking the boundary of no return; whatever enters…