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Stephen Hawking Shunned Israel, But Jewish Academic Inspired Key Discovery

(JTA) — Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist who died Wednesday at 76, had a publicly strained relationship with Israel.

Although Hawking visited the country several times, giving lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities, he pointedly boycotted an academic conference in Jerusalem in 2013.

However, Hawking has an Israeli scientist to thank for some of his most groundbreaking research.

In the early 1970s, when the British-born Hawking had already done essential work on the cosmic gravitational fields known as black holes, he got into a disagreement with Jacob Bekenstein, then a doctoral student at Princeton. Bekenstein, the son of Polish-Jewish parents in Mexico, had Israeli citizenship and later taught at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem for 25 years.

In his doctoral thesis, which made waves in 1972, Bekenstein theorized that black holes had entropy, or disorder in its system, and subsequently, according to the laws of physics, a temperature. Hawking disagreed, maintaining that black holes could not radiate anything and therefore had no temperature. At a conference in France that year, Hawking gathered a few colleagues and angrily confronted Bekenstein.

“These three were senior people. I was just out of my Ph.D. You worry whether you are just stupid and these guys know the truth,” Bekenstein said about the event.

But in 1974, Hawking proved Bekenstein’s idea through a complicated quantum theory calculation. At first he kept the calculation secret, afraid to admit his mistake. He eventually brought his discovery public — today it is considered one of his most important achievements.


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