My friend, the genius: Piece of Stephen Hawking history almost lost to time

When the “Canadian Father of Black Holes” gave some books to the University of Victoria, the librarians were stunned to find tucked inside a letter signed by the real star of The Theory of Everything.

Some time ago, retired physicist Werner Israel donated a rare first edition of the 1973 book The Large Scale Structure of Space Time by Stephen W. Hawking and G.F.R. Ellis to the library at UVic. When the book was finally examined last summer, out fluttered a letter from Hawking himself, along with some newspaper clippings about the man.

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In the letter, dated Feb. 6, 1981, and signed simply “Stephen,” Hawking asked Israel for permission to nominate him for membership in the prestigious Royal Society. The letter also named famous physicist Roger Penrose, now Sir Roger, as another person anxious to support Israel as a candidate.

“I was very proud of that letter,” said Israel, who was accepted into the society. “Not only is it a great honour to be proposed for election to Royal Society, but to be proposed for election by the two leading relativists of the time made it a double honour.”

“It’s a good thing they [UVic library] found it,” he said in an interview at his Oak Bay home.

Lara Wilson, UVic director of special collections and university archives, said the book, the letter and clippings, are now properly stored and available to be viewed.

Wilson said the book is special because on its inside cover, Israel had pencilled a page’s worth of formulae to assist him as he read the work. These pencilled jottings demonstrate the personal connection between Israel and the scholarly work.

Also special are the clippings and the Hawking letter. Chatty in its style, the letter ends with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge and news that “Timmy,” Hawking’s youngest child, has just started to speak.

“It highlights [Israel’s] contribution to the field to have a meaningful volume from [his library] in special collections, and this letter documents this special relationship,” said Wilson.

Hawking died March 14, 2018, at the age of 76. He was diagnosed in 1963 at the age of 21 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that slowly, inexorably robs the body of all muscle movement. At his life’s end, an external air pump did Hawking’s breathing, he was fed with a gastric tube and he communicated with a computer voice that was activated and controlled by a single muscle in one cheek.

But despite his paralysis, he never stopped working on physics and has earned worldwide acclaim for his intellect and strength of character.

Israel, 87, retired from his post as an adjunct professor of physics at UVic in 2007. Before that, he was part of the University of Alberta for 38 years, leaving in 1996 to move to Victoria. He now lives in Oak Bay with his wife, Inge.

He was born in Berlin, but his family took note of the danger of the Nazi regime and moved to Capetown, South Africa. After growing up and completing his early education, Israel pursued graduate studies in Dublin, Ireland.

“It was in Dublin where I met this very pretty girl and for some reason I still can’t understand, she agreed to marry me,” said Israel.

His time at the U of A was broken up by years of absences to work with other scholars at other institutions, including periods when he and Hawking worked together at Cambridge University.

But it was at the U of A where, in 1967, Israel discovered and proved that black holes are actually a very simple phenomenon, a discovery that later earned him the nickname “the Canadian Father of Black Holes.” It also predated Hawking’s 1974 breakthrough proving black holes emit radiation, now called “Hawking Radiation,” which they emit until they evaporate.

Israel’s proof became known as the “No Hair Theorem of Black Holes, with “hair” being physicists’ slang for mathematical complications. It shows only two numbers are needed to describe any black hole: its mass and its spin.

“It surprised everybody,” said Israel. “Even Stephen was surprised and very, very impressed by that paper.”

He said Hawking in one of his popular books later credited Israel with having “revolutionized black-hole physics.”

“I think he was being a little too kind,” said Israel.

He called his discovery a mixture of luck and timing. It was early on in the physicists’ examination of black holes and not many were interested.

“Back then very few people even believed in them, even Einstein didn’t believe,” said Israel. “Black holes were just too exciting.”

“So it was very good to get in at the beginning.” he said. “It was actually very easy then to make great discoveries.”

But the No Hair Theorem caused Hawking to reach out to and invite Israel to Cambridge, where the two worked together for about a year. They also spent a year working together at the California Institute of Technology after they were invited by acclaimed physicist and Nobel laureate Kip Thorne.

The relationship between Israel and Hawking became one of collaboration and friendship that extended to their two families. The pair co-edited two books, General Relativity, An Einstein Centenary Survey, 1979, and 300 Years of Gravitation, 1987.

In 1991, Hawking flew to Edmonton and travelled to Banff to reconnect with the Israels and celebrate Werner’s 60th birthday.

He and Inge still recall fondly their friendship with Hawking — his playful racing around in his wheelchair giving rides to the children, his cheeky fixation with attractive and famous women movie stars, and his unwillingness to permit anyone, ever, to patronize him.

“He never allowed anybody to underestimate him, which was quite right because he was a superman,” said Israel.

He and Inge both watched the 2014 movie based on Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything, and both agreed it was an accurate depiction of their friend. The pair can also still recall Hawking’s assertion that all people with disabilities should become physicists.

“He said: ‘It’s because all you have to do is sit and think,’ ” said Israel.

But they both also acknowledge with fondness and reverence the strength of patience and intellect that allowed Hawking to continue to work and discover after ALS left his body immobilized.

“Even his calculations, the ones that he did proving that black holes evaporate, most people couldn’t do them holding a paper and pencil, but he did it all in his head,” said Israel.

“He was really quite remarkable,” he said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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