Physicist, cosmologist and something of a dreamer…
Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.
Born on the 8th January 1942 (exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo), few other scientists have contributed more to our understanding of space, time and the universe than Professor Stephen Hawking.
His work on the origins of the universe, black holes and the big bang has helped make great advancements in humanity’s quest to answer some of the most ultimate questions. How did the universe come into being? Where did we come from?
The complexity and significance of his discoveries are very difficult to explain and we have no shame in leaving this to the experts. As Barrack Obama joked when presenting Hawking with the President’s Medal of Freedom in 2008, “His work in the field of theoretical physics,
which I will not attempt to explain further here, has advanced our understanding of the universe.”
A Brief History in Time
For those not phased by some very heavy reading, his 1988 international bestseller “A Brief History of Time” is the starting point in understanding his work. With over 10 million copies sold to date, it is the best-selling scientific book of all time and elevated Hawking’s fame from a hugely respected scientist to a household name.
However, don’t under estimate the effort required to read it. Whilst the book contains just one equation (E=mc2), most people manage just the first few chapters before the mind-bending concepts of quantum mechanics are introduced. Indeed, even Hawking acknowledged that a significant number of copies were purchased to intellectually augment coffee tables.
For a much easier read his later work “The Universe in a Nutshell” whilst none the less informative, is exceedingly well illustrated making some of the very strange principles and theories much easier to comprehend.
Alternatively, for some fascinating viewing, “Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking The Story of Everything” is well worth a watch (see below).
However great his contributions to the world of physics, Hawking’s story is not just one of intellectual triumph but also formidable and inspirational determination.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in physics from Oxford Hawking began his graduate studies at Cambridge in 1963. Shortly afterwards and at the age of just 21 Hawking contracted motor neurone disease. Also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or “ALS” it is a progressive condition that affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord eventually preventing them from reaching the body’s muscles.
Having initially been told that he was unlikely to live past his mid-twenties, Hawking initially fell into a short spell of depression and ceased his studies feeling that there was little point continuing.
His outlook quickly changed, his mortality giving him a focus he had not previously benefited from. By his own admission he had been a lazy student at times and been somewhat bored of life before being diagnosed. He grew happier, married his first wife with whom he had three children and his disease progressed much slower than was first feared.
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.
He continued with his studies which focused on such subjects as the big bang, black holes and spacetime singularities and in 1966 completed his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics.
By the late 60’s his speech was becoming increasingly difficult to understand, he lost the ability to write and reluctantly accepted his need to use a wheelchair. Yet in 1970 Hawking together with Roger Penrose published proof that the universe must have started as a singularity, work which received much acclaim in the science community.
As the public’s curiosity on black holes grew so did Hawking’s reputation. He was frequently identified as one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject and his studies broadened into the study of quantum mechanics.
By the late 70’s Hawking’s speech had deteriorated to such an extent that only his family and closest friends could understand him and would have to translate his words for others. This however did not prevent him from becoming the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in 1979, the same position Sir Issac Newton once held.
In 1982 he began work on “A Brief History of Time” although not long after its first draft he caught pneumonia which was life-threatening and required a tracheotomy. This resulted in the loss of what remained of his speech. Soon after he would receive a computer which he could use his hand to select words and phrases to be spoken through a voice synthesizer. He said that it allowed him to communicate much better than he had been able to previously.
His new, electronic voice would become synonymous with him and despite the opportunity to upgrade to newer voices over the years he insisted on keeping it often making light of his American-sounding accent despite being British.
As his motor neurone disease progressed as the years went on, Hawking lost the use of his hand and new systems were developed to use his facial expressions and eye movements to control an early version of predictive text and his wheelchair.
In his later years Hawking was more frequently asked for his thoughts on subjects such as the future of humanity, politics, religion, global warming and technologies such as artificial intelligence. There was no sugar-coating in his responses. At times his thoughts were disturbingly bleak and caused offense to the religious.
Professor Stephen Hawking passed away peacefully on March 14th 2018 at his home in Cambridge.
Popular Culture and Humour
The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognised. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.
In the process of dealing with his physical disability Hawking placed a great deal of importance on maintaining a sense of humour and for this he was renowned. His quick wit would often cut through his computerised voice and have people in fits of laughter.
We should probably note that Hawking is on the record as saying he hoped to be remembered for his work on black holes and the origin of the universe and not for things like appearing on “The Simpsons”. However, it is inescapable not to mention some of the moments where he took centre stage or the public got to appreciate his wicked sense of humour.
His appearances on the Simpson, Futurama, The Big Bang Theory and Start Trek are all testament to a man who didn’t take himself too seriously. But let’s not forget he also worked with comedy legends Monty Python, appeared on 2 Pink Floyd albums and played a major role in the opening of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
The 2014 film “The Theory of Everything” saw Eddie Redmayne play Hawking in a biographical romantic drama covering most of his adult life. The film received high critical acclaim with Redmayne picking up an Oscar for his portrayal.
More Information & Charities
For more information on Stephen Hawking his official website is www.hawking.org.uk.
For more information on motor neurone disease please visit the MND Association website, www.mndassociation.org A patron of the Association since 2008, Hawking had been involved with the charity since it was founded back in 1979.