A Scientist Undeterred by Disability
The fictional X-Men character “Professor X” might as well have been inspired by the brilliant Stephen Hawking. Luckily for Professor X, he does not require aid from a synthesizer to speak to his superhuman heroes. Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, faced a bleaker future; his motor neurone disease would eventually render him totally paralyzed with nothing but his brain, heart, and lungs functioning. Since undergoing a tracheotomy, he prematurely lost the ability to speak altogether. Soon, his physical body would be reduced to resemble that of a cabbage, save for his ability to think and feel.
If Stephen had nothing to look forward to, then where does he get the motivation to write books, give lectures and do research? Yes, Stephen is not of this world – that’s literally and figuratively speaking.
He spent most of his terminal life studying the universe and looking for ways to uncover the vast mysteries of science. His findings earned him the moniker “Master of the Universe.” To some extent, he is indeed the master of his own universe; most of us would give everything just to get into the mind of this celebrated scientist. Unless one is as inquisitive as Stephen, he/she won’t go far beyond where others have gone to explore new possibilities.
Stephen’s contributions to science have earned him accolades from the British Royal Court and other well-respected award-giving bodies. In 1982, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the United States to a non-uniformed citizen.
According to Stephen, he used to be bored with life, which is not surprising given his intellectual endowment; he found little meaning in his existence. But contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, changed his perspective. Two-and-a-half years marked the time left for him on Earth, at least according to the specialists who examined him.
Thinking that he was dying changed his attitude towards life. He was no longer bored, and found more reasons to enjoy and look forward to every day he was given to spend with loved ones. Following his diagnosis, what made tomorrow bearable for Stephen was his fiancée, Jane Wilde.
Stephen was not as unfortunate in love as he was in health. Jane loved him unconditionally, and not even his terminal illness could stop her from being his wife; they married and eventually had children. Two and a half years had gone by and, to the Hawkings’ delight, Stephen’s illness seemed to have slowed down, buying him time to be with his children and pursue his career in physics.
With the help of his wheelchair, Stephen was able to get by on his own, and he later secured a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College. But his ALS soon kept him from doing oral lectures; a pneumonia complication resulted in the removal of his voice box, disabling him from speaking for the rest of his life.
Aside from losing his voice, the promising physicist also began losing command over his voluntary movements. Unfazed, Stephen kept publishing essays and writing books, and almost all were well-received by those in the academe. Life went on, and he even fell in love for the second time. He let go of his wife Jane – who, prior to their divorce, had fallen in love with a musician – and remarried to Elaine Mason, a nurse.
Studying Black Holes
That goes to show that Stephen lived a normal life, as far as he’s concerned. His children are proud of him and what he has achieved in spite of his physical limitations. Plus, he has seriously proven experts wrong about the time he would have to live with his unforgiving disease.
It won’t be enough to say that Stephen Hawking now lives a full life; the thing about him is that he wants to be known as “a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person.”
In his interviews, he is known as a candid person who doesn’t sugar-coat facts to please anyone. Lou Gehrig’s Syndrome certainly toughened him up! Since his health had begun to deteriorate, the legendary scientist focused on black holes and the beginning of the creation of the universe. With more than enough time on his hands to mull over complicated concepts, Stephen uncovered and introduced numerous scientific breakthroughs.
He turned his disability into an opportunity to make something of his remaining time, regardless of how short and disheartening the future seemed to be. Without a doubt, Stephen rose to the occasion and has yet to see the end of his fruitful life. Had he given up early, we would have been denied one of the world’s greatest scientists.
Stephen William Hawking was fortunate to be born into an erudite family. His father, Frank, was a medical researcher, and his mother, Isobel, worked as a secretary. Both graduated from the University of Oxford. The couple settled down in Highgate, but London became unsafe for the pregnant Isobel as World War II began. They decided to relocate to Oxford, and there she gave birth to their firstborn on 8 January 1942 – a baby boy they named Stephen William. Isobel soon gave birth to two daughters, Philippa and Mary, and also adopted a boy named Edward.
While in Oxford, Stephen attended the Byron House. When he was eight years old, his father was promoted at the National Institute for Medical Research to head the Division of Parasitology. This prompted the family to move to St. Albans, Hertfordshire, where people regarded them as highly-intelligent but also an odd family. According to close family friends, the Hawkings had a habit of reading books while eating dinner. Surprisingly, they found Stephen to be the only person in the family close to “normal.”
As he was only eight years old, he was allowed admission into the St. Albans High School for Girls, where boys under 10 years old were considered eligible for enrollment. Stephen did not stand out in school; however, his aptitude for mathematics was well-known at the school and he earned his due recognition.
He spent one year at the Radlett School, and was subsequently enrolled in the St. Albans School in 1982. Both of his parents valued education more than anything else. Frank wanted his son to attend Westminster School, but the boy was unable to take the scholarship examinations due to illness. Stephen knew that unless his matriculation was subsidized, his parents wouldn’t be able to afford sending him to Westminster. He felt bad for his father for letting him down. With few options, he again attended St. Albans School the following school year.
From Oxford to Cambridge
While at St. Albans School, he helped his math teacher Dikran Tahta assemble a computer using recycled parts of clocks and telephones. Although known as a “genius” in school, Stephen’s lackadaisical attitude towards his studies produced mediocre grades. With Dikran’s influence, however, his interest in mathematics developed nevertheless. In fact, he had already made up his mind about obtaining a degree in the subject.
As an Oxford alumnus, Frank wanted his only son to follow in his footsteps. Because Oxford didn’t have mathematical fellowship, he convinced Stephen to take other science courses. After successfully passing Oxford’s scholarship examinations in March 1959, the 17-year-old Stephen was admitted to his father’s alma mater.
The first three semesters at Oxford failed to challenge the exceptionally-bright Stephen. He rarely studied, as he found his subjects too easy. While having little to do, Stephen joined Oxford’s rowing team; rowing seemed easier to do than ball games, which generally intimidated Stephen. Becoming part of the rowing team made him more sociable and, for a short of period of time, he had a taste of what it was like to be a typical teenager.
However, he relished the moment too much for his own good. Come final examinations, the usually-confident Stephen was panicky. In one of the many documentaries about his life, he related that he only put in about a thousand hours of study the entire time he was at Oxford, something of which he was not proud.
He did well in the final examinations despite his lack of preparation, and got a score that bordered on First and Second Class Honors. He had to take a “viva voce,” or oral exam, to help the administration decide which honor he would merit. Stephen matter-of-factly told the panel:
"If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.”
He was right about the school awarding him First Class Honors. As elated as he was, Stephen had been bothered by the many instances when he would suddenly lose his balance for no apparent reason. He found it disturbing, and started getting suspicious. One day, while strolling around the park, he tried to climb one of the trees just to see if he could still do it as adroitly as he once could. He did climb the tree, despite exerting great effort.
He did not tell his mother about it until he started his Doctorate degree at Cambridge. Stephen and Isobel went skiing together and, for no reason at all, Stephen fell and could not get up. That was when he told his mother about the sudden attacks of vertigo and the many times he had lost his balance. He also confessed that he had already seen a doctor as per his father’s advice, as Frank was the first to notice his son’s decreasing sense of balance.
In his own words, Stephen described how the diagnosis was made:
“I was in for two weeks, during which I had a wide variety of tests. They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with x-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn't tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an atypical case. I gathered, however, that they expected it to continue to get worse, and that there was nothing they could do, except give me vitamins. I could see that they didn't expect them to have much effect. I didn't feel like asking for more details, because they were obviously bad.” (Source: Hawking.org.uk)
Many of us are familiar with the doctors’ horrible prediction. Stephen was given two-and-a-half years to live, but was ironically advised to live life as normally as possible. If not for Jane Wilde, a sister’s close friend, Stephen would have conveniently succumbed to depression. After all, two-and-a-half years of existence hardly amounted to anything. Yet, Jane gave Stephen a reason to live. The two got engaged in 1964 and, in spite of Stephen’s worsening condition, went ahead with their marriage plans.
University of Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics
Despite facing uncertainties and the horror of living like a vegetable, Stephen decided to move on with his life. Since he outlived the ultimatum given to him, Stephen stopped counting and looked for other ways to make every second of his life count. In 1967, his son Robert was born, and his daughter Lucy was born in 1970. His children gave the ailing scientist another boost; on the other hand, it also meant that he needed a job to support his family. His Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College gave the family a steady source of income. It would then be another nine years before Timothy, his youngest son, was born.
Four years later, Stephen’s motor skills had deteriorated until he could no longer feed himself. Around that time, Jane suggested that they let one of his graduate students live with them and care for him in exchange for free board and lodging, on top of the popular professor’s extra mentoring. It was also around that time when he coined “Hawking Radiation,” a term for the radiation emitted by black holes. That discovery earned him numerous awards including the Eddington Medal, the Pius XI Gold Medal, the Dannie Heineman Prize, the Maxwell Prize and the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society. In 1978, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree by his alma mater. He was also appointed to serve at the University of Cambridge as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a coveted position he held from 1979 to 2009.
In 1980, he was hospitalized due to pneumonia after visiting CERN for an experiment which made him experience weightlessness eight separate times. Dr. Roger Grey of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge performed a tracheotomy to save his life, and his near-death experience led to closer medical surveillance. His marriage with Jane suffered, and he became closer to one of his nurses, the “vivacious” Elaine Mason, whose ex-husband [a computer engineer] fashioned Stephen’s wheelchair with a smaller portable computer. They married in 1995, five years after Stephen divorced Jane, and the marriage lasted 11 years. The two later divorced amidst rumors of Elaine’s inhumane treatment of Stephen.
Stephen’s family life may have gone to shambles, but his reputation as a scientist kept growing. What launched him to celebrity status was his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” published by Bantam Books. He had closed a deal with Bantam to help augment his nursing care expenses. What they were not prepared for, however, was the book’s overwhelmingly positive response from the public. It stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 237 weeks, thus earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. More essays and books soon followed, the latest being “The Grand Design” published in 2010.
For the last 50 years, since he was given two-and-a-half years to live, Dr. Stephen Hawking has yet to breathe his last. What better way to prove doctors wrong than earn countless awards and Honorary Degrees when you could have long been dead?
With the help of technology, we’ll see more of Stephen’s books and hear more of his synthesized voice. Perhaps he’ll live long enough to try out the future cure for ALS. For now, the physicist will be in his wheelchair, appearing to be stationary while his mind roams the cosmos in search for the answers to our toughest questions.
Organizations and Campaigns Supported
- COSMOS National Cosmology Supercomputer
- Perimeter Institute
- Paralympic Games
- Cambridge Project for Existential Risk
- Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
- Royal Society of Arts
- Pontifical Academy of Sciences
- Lucasian Professor of Mathematics
- University of Cambridge
- Oxford Boat Club
- Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability
- Labour Party
- Universal health care
- Nuclear disarmament
- Fighting climate change
- Stem cell research
- British Telecom
- Egg Banking
- Go Compare
- Centre for Theoretical Cosmology
- 1959: Admitted to Oxford at the age of 17
- 1965: Received a Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College
- 1966: His essay “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” won the “Adam's Prize”
- 1966: Completed his Doctorate degree from Cambridge
- 1968: His joint essay with Penrose was a runner-up in the Gravity Research Foundation competition
- 1969: Accepted a specially-created “Fellowship for Distinction in Science” to remain at Caius
- 1971: His essay “Black Holes" won the “Gravity Research Foundation Award”
- 1973: Published “The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time,” co-authored with George Ellis
- 1974: Coined “Hawking Radiation”
- 1974: Accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society
- 1974: Appointed to the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar and received Visiting Professorship at the California Institute of Technology
- 1975: Received the “Eddington Medal” and the “Pius XI Gold Medal”
- 1976: Received the “Dannie Heineman Prize,” the “Maxwell Prize” and the “Hughes Medal” of the Royal Society
- 1978: Awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree by the University of Oxford
- 1979: Received the “Albert Einstein Medal”
- 1979-2009: Served at the University of Cambridge as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics
- 1981: Received the “American Franklin Medal”
- 1982: Received the Order of the British Empire (Commander)
- 1983: Developed the “Hartle-Hawking” state
- 1985: Received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
- 1986: Became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
- 1987: Received the “Paul Dirac Medal”
- 1988: His book “A Brief History of Time” was published and became a bestseller
- 1988: Received the “Wolf Prize in Physics” with Penrose
- 1989: Received the “Prince of Asturias Awards” in Concord and named “Companion of Honor”
- 1992: A film version of “A Brief History of Time” was produced
- 1993: His book “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays” was published
- 1993: Appeared on “Star Trek”
- 1993: His voice was recorded for the Pink Floyd song “Keep Talking”
- 1997: A film about him, “Stephen Hawking's Universe,” was produced
- 1997: Became Principal Investigator of the COSMOS National Cosmology Supercomputer
- 1999: Appeared on “The Simpsons” and received the “LMS Naylor Prize” and the “Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize” of the American Physical Society
- 2001: Published “The Universe in a Nutshell” and appeared in the documentary “The Real Stephen Hawking”
- 2002: Appeared in the documentary “Stephen Hawking: Profile,” included by BBC in their list of the “100 Greatest Britons” and published “On The Shoulders of Giants”
- 2003: Received the “Michelson Morley Award” from Case Western Reserve University
- 2004: Appeared in the TV film “Hawking”
- 2005: Published “A Briefer History of Time” and “God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs That Changed History”
- 2005: The film “Horizon: The Hawking Paradox” was released
- 2006: Received the “Copley Medal” of the Royal Society, co-developed the theory of “top-down cosmology” and co-wrote a children's book, “George's Secret Key to the Universe,” with Lucy Hawking
- 2007: Participated in zero-gravity flight in a “Vomit Comet”
- 2008: The films “Masters of Science Fiction” and “Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe” were released
- 2008: Received the “Fonseca Prize” of the University of Santiago de Compostela and presided over the unveiling of the “Chronophage” Corpus Clock
- 2009: Co-wrote a children's book, “George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt,” with Lucy Hawking and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom vested by the United States of America
- 2010: Published “The Grand Design”
- 2010: The film “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” was released
- 2011: Co-wrote a children's book, “George and the Big Bang,” with Lucy Hawking
- 2011: The film “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” was released
- 2012: Received the “Fundamental Physics Prize” from the government of Russia and narrated the Enlightenment segment of the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony
- 2012: The film “Stephen Hawking's Grand Design” was released
- Ranked Number 17 in the “Popular Biographies” list
- “A Brief History of Time” remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for a record-breaking 237 weeks
- A building in San Salvador, El Salvador, was named after him: the “Stephen W. Hawking Science Museum”
- A building in Cambridge was named after him: the “Stephen Hawking Building”
- A building at Perimeter Institute in Canada was named after him: the “Stephen Hawking Centre”
- Currently the Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics
- Endorsed NS&I, British Telecom, Specsavers, Egg Banking brands and Go Compare
- Inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
- Founded the “Centre for Theoretical Cosmology” at Cambridge