Physicist Don Page named to the Royal Society of Canada

    It’s not everyday you meet someone who’s openly argued with Stephen Hawking and won. Meet Don Page, an award-winning professor in the Department of Physics and a recently named Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada - and one of the few people in the world who can make that claim.

    January 20, 2012

    Page, who joined the U of A in 1990, earned a reputation as a rebel in his field of cosmology early on, “I studied and lived with Dr. Stephen Hawking who was my post doctoral supervisor, and when I struck out to find my first faculty position, I also started to disagree with some of his theories. I think people were surprised that I would go up against him – but I think I earned respect for having the courage to do that at first – and then when he agreed that I was right, well, I just wish I would have made a larger wager with him,” laughs Page.

    This orientation for asking bold questions has led to dual notoriety, not only as a rebel, but also as an icon - with no less than four concepts that bear his name: the Page approximation in blackhole physics, the Page metric in quantum gravity, the Page charge in supergravity and the Hawking-Page transition in black-hole thermodynamics— as well as the refutation of three major claims by Stephen Hawking.

    While the world he describes may seem to express complexity itself, he sees simplicity. “We think the universe as a whole may be much simpler than most of its individual parts, just as the set of all whole numbers is simpler than most of the very large numbers that set contains. We would like to find conceptually simple laws for describing the whole universe, even though it may be far beyond our abilities to calculate from these simple laws the full consequences for the complex individual parts.” 

    How does a scientist come to lead a field of inquiry with such rigor and originality? As a child growing up in Alaska, Page didn’t actually attend school until he started university. He was taught at home by his two adventure-hungry parents who thought they’d leave Missouri for a one-year adventure in Alaska but ended up staying for 31 years. 

    An extraordinary way to start - and an extraordinary way to approach a promising career as he went on to study and collaborate not only with Hawking, but with luminaries like Bryce DeWitt, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, James Hartle, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind, Kip Thorne, Steven Weinberg, John Wheeler, and Edward Witten – but he says that some of his most enduring lessons came from Werner Israel, who brought Page to the U of A and whom Page admires as perhaps the greatest gravitational theorist in the history of Canada. “I have greatly benefited from being part of that group.” 

    And so have we.