Mr. Robert Hawking visits with Physics Professor Joshua Colwell at UCF’s Center for Microgravity Research in December 2019.

UCF Names Its Microgravity Research Center in Honor of Stephen W. Hawking

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

The University of Central Florida today is one step closer to becoming the first American university to name a research center after the late, world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen W. Hawking.

The UCF’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved on Thursday that UCF’s Center for Microgravity Research, would now be known as the Stephen W. Hawking Center for Microgravity Research and Education. The last step will be approval by the Space Florida Board of Directors.

“I want to personally thank Professor Hawking’s family, especially Robert Hawking who visited with us right before the pandemic and Lucy Hawking who shares our passion for science and educating the next generation of students. We are honored to be entrusted with Professor Hawking’s name and will continue to conduct world class space research, something that is part of UCF’s DNA.” — UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright

The establishment of this Center brings to fulfillment Professor Hawking’s personal aspiration to support microgravity space research in the United States. That enthusiasm was generated years ago after a Zero-gravity flight at the Cape sponsored by Space Florida, which then connected him with UCF.

In the ensuing years, UCF continued to build its reputation as a space research institution and a team of specialists formed the Center for Microgravity Research. Physics Professor Joshua Colwell, who has worked on multiple NASA missions, began collaborating with a team of colleagues and students to build expertise in microgravity research – a key area of interest for Hawking.

Lucy Hawking, his daughter, said: “We are grateful to the University of Central Florida for honoring my father’s legacy in this way. My father dedicated his life to advancing our understanding of the universe and encouraging generations of future scientists to build on his own work and that of his colleagues. He would have been proud of this collaboration with the US physicists of tomorrow.”

The only other university to have a research center named after Hawking is the University of Cambridge in the UK. As a PhD student, Hawking studied applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specializing in general relativity and cosmology. He eventually became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the university, a position once held by Isaac Newton.

Professor Joshua Colwell, Associate Professor Adrienne Dove and a group of students aboard a Zero-G flight with an experiment built in the Microgravity Center.

One other research center with a close personal connection to Hawking is the Stephen Hawking Center at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, an independent research hub devoted to theoretical physics.

“We are humbled to be entrusted with Dr. Hawking’s name,” said Elizabeth Klonoff, UCF’s Vice President for Research who helped build the relationship that led to the agreement. “UCF began in part to support our space industry in the 1960s, and we have grown to be well respected in planetary sciences. Our faculty are bold pioneers pushing the boundaries of knowledge, something Professor Hawking I know would appreciate.”

A naming ceremony is being planned for early next year.

“Space Florida is excited to see this goal of Professor Hawking now become the opportunity he envisioned here in Florida,” said Frank DiBello, Space Florida President and CEO, who was the recipient of a letter from Professor Hawking which provided permission to use his name. “His brief experience in weightlessness triggered that extraordinary imagination to recognize new possibility. UCF is well positioned to further that dream.”

Hawking is considered one of the most important theoretical physicists of our time. His work on the structure of the universe, such as the Big Bang and black holes, helped establish our understanding of the cosmos. He also published books about space and science that are easily understood by the general public, including the longtime best seller A Brief History of Time. His impact on the field was so significant that he has a place in pop culture, appearing in movies, television sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory, and even the Simpsons cartoon.

Despite being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease early in his career and told he only had a couple of years left to live; he went on to have a brilliant career expanding our knowledge of the cosmos. He died March 14, 2018, on Albert Einstein’s birthday.

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