On March 14 ,the world received the news that the legendary physicist Professor Stephen Hawking had died at the age of 76. Paying tribute to their father, his three children – Lucy, Robert and Tim – said “he once said, ‘it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.” This week, The Student explores the incredible life and career of the scientist who defied all expectations.
Stephen William Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford to Frank and Isobel Hawking. A well educated family, the Hawkings have often been described as ‘eccentric’, housing bees in the basement of their family home and making fireworks in the greenhouse. In the summertime, Stephen and his mother would spend evenings stretched out on a blanket gazing up at the night sky. Despite his father’s desire for Stephen to enter into a medical career, it seems Stephen’s curious mind had developed a fascination with the universe early in life.
Acquiring the nickname ‘Einstein’ from his friends and teachers, Stephen appeared restless during his early education at St. Albans School. Third from the bottom of his class, Stephen rarely paid attention and often spent time deconstructing clocks and machines to better understand how they worked. Despite this Dick Tahta, Stephen’s mathematics teacher, seemed to engage him and turned out to be Stephen’s greatest inspiration of his early years.
In 1959, aged just 17, Hawking entered University College, Oxford to study Natural Sciences. After a shaky start of boredom and loneliness, He found an outlet in his extracurricular activities. Joining the University College Boat Club as a coxswain, Hawking developed a witty, daredevil character often navigating risky courses resulting in the return of damaged boats. His idle attitude towards his study persisted throughout his degree and Hawking estimated he only studied for around 1000 hours during his three years there. Approaching his final exams, Hawking decided he would only answer theoretical physics questions, leaving those that actually required taught facts blank. Despite this, he graduated with a 1st Class (Hons) in Natural Sciences and went on to pursue his PhD at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1962.
Hawking’s graduate years were both challenging and life-changing. Within just a few months of beginning at Cambridge, Hawking was diagnosed with the rare neurological disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and told by doctors he had just two years to live. Plunging into a depressive state, it was Hawking’s graduate supervisor, Dennis Sciama, who encouraged him to pursue his work. However, it was the love he found with his first wife Jane Wilde that, in his own words, “gave him something to live for”. Despite Hawking’s declining ability to walk unaided and the fact that his speech was gradually becoming unintelligible, Hawking’s launched himself into his research with more passion and drive than ever before. His mind never slowing, he gained a reputation for his intelligent audacity, regularly challenging current concepts and experts in the field. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a space-time singularity, Hawking’s applied this theory to the universe and, in 1966, culminated his doctorate with the thesis ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’.
Professor Stephen Hawking made a number of scientific contributions to the field of general relativity, quantum physics, and cosmology. His early doctoral work lead him to work with Roger Penrose and the duo later published proof that, based upon Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the universe must have began as a singularity, with the Big Bang, and must end in black holes. Leading on from this, Hawking questioned the assumption that black holes were truly black. Working through complex equations, Hawking concluded that black holes emit radiation, now aptly termed Hawking Radiation, leading them to eventually evaporate and disappear.
Hawking made an incredible contribution to modern day physics and cosmology, not only through developing a greater understanding of the laws that govern the universe but through his teaching, public lectures and award-winning books that attempt to make the depths of theoretical physics understandable to you and I. Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1974), serving 30 years as a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (1979-2009) and the recipient of 13 honorary degrees, his career achievements were truly outstanding. What’s more, Hawking displayed charm, humour and humility – and it is these qualities that make him one of the nation’s most treasured public figures.
Beyond the scientist was a family
On July 14th, 1965, Hawking married Jane Wilde, a languages student at Westfield College, London University. Uncertain of the time they would get together due to Hawking’s ALS diagnosis in 1962, the couple had two children, Robert, born in 1967, and Lucy, born in 1970, within just a few years, and later welcomed Timothy in 1979.
Hawking’s ALS gradually progressed. By 1969, he lost the use of his legs and had started using a wheelchair. Over the next decade he became unable to write and his speech severely deteriorated. Jane assumed responsibility as a carer to Hawking, as well as a mother to their three children, all whilst trying to maintain her studies and fulfil her own ambitions. In 1985, during a visit to CERN, Hawking contracted pneumonia and became critically ill. Following the insertion of a breathing tube into his throat, Hawking lost the ability to speak and from here on required 24/7 nursing care. He received a voice synthesiser in 1986 allowing him to select words from a library of 2500-3000 and type phrases out. His youngest son Timothy, confessed that on occasion he would programme swear words into the machine and play pranks on his father. As Hawking lost the use of his hand, in 2005, the synthesiser was developed to detect movements from the muscles in his cheek and later, from 2014, his eyebrow. Despite their divorce in 1995, Hawking and Jane remained close until the end of his life.
What is ALS?
ALS is a subtype of a group of disorders known as Motor Neuron Diseases (MNDs) that involve the progressive degeneration and death of the nerve cells (motor neurons) in the brain and spinal cord, involved in the control of voluntary movements, such as walking and talking. As the neurons die, they are unable to send innervating electrical signals to the muscles; unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken and waste. The majority of patients develop the disease sporadically whilst approximately 10% of cases are inherited. With no effective treatments to halt or reverse the disease, patients often die from respiratory failure within 3-5 years of the symptomatic onset.
A groundbreaking scientist, the world’s oldest ALS patient, an author, mentor, friend and father. With his marvellous mind and silly sense of humour, the legacy of Professor Stephen Hawking will live on for generations to come.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” – Professor Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018
Image credit: Lwp Kommunikáció via flickr