Even though he can only communicate using a muscle in his cheek, Stephen Hawking has made himself into a world-renowned physicist thanks to his groundbreaking work, impish wit, and refusal to let his disability stifle his potential.
His books are illustrated with images of himself flying through space in his wheelchair, he would rather meet Marilyn Monroe over Issac Newton, and his mischevious grin sneaks into view as he presses a button on his chair dedicated to cracking jokes.
Stephen Hawking is an undeniably fascinating figure. Whether you’re an admirer of his exceptional mind, a fan of his appearances in popular TV shows, or amused by his propensity to mow people down in his wheelchair – there is much more to this Cosmologist than meets the eye.
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An eccentric from birth
Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8th in 1942, in Oxford, England. His arrival was in the midst of WWII and a financial rough patch for his well-educated parents. But a proud Stephen takes pride in knowing that he was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo Galilei.
His subtle peculiarities can be traced back to his family, who were often described as an “eccentric” bunch. Their family car was an old London taxi, they housed bees in the basement, and produced fireworks in the greenhouse. At dinner, each Hawking would intently read a book while the family ate in complete silence.
Stephen’s father was a researcher in tropical medicine and tried to nudge his son into studying medicine too. But Stephen’s fascination was for the stars and beyond. He would often lay in the backyard along with his mother and siblings, staring up at the stars during warm summer evenings. It was here that young Stephen began to question why the universe is how it is, and why it exists at all.
His mother noted his budding passion for the skies, “Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder,” she remembers fondly.
Down to more earthly interests, Stephen Hawking had a proclivity for playing and inventing boardgames. He also showed an interest in how things worked. At home, in his family’s three-story fixer-upper house which never really got fixed, he would curiously disassemble clocks and radios. Although, he was rarely successful at putting them back together again.
Surprisingly ordinary at school
In 1950, Stephen attended St. Albans School in Hertfordshire, where his sharp mind won him the nickname of “Einstein” amongst his peers. Although his grades were ranked among the worst in his class and his untidy classwork was the despair of his teachers.
Stephen’s favorite subject by far was math. His teacher inspired him and a group of fellow intellectuals to build a computer out of recycled parts for solving basic mathematical equations. This interest in math later motivated him to pass a scholarship exam, earning him a spot at his father’s old college – Oxford. The scholarship was greatly appreciated by his parents, who didn’t have the money to send him without one.
A degree in Mathematics was his first choice, but this wasn’t offered at Oxford. So he settled for a degree in what they did offer: Physics.
At 17, he began his first year at this prestigious college. It was quite boring for Stephen’s proficient mind. He found the work “ridiculously easy” and could do it without peering over at his classmates or asking tutors for help. He quickly found himself feeling isolated and lonely.
But during his second and third year, his personality met a turning point. Stephen joined the college rowing club which encouraged him to cultivate a witty, lively and popular image. He wasn’t very fit, so he was left in charge of steering the boat. But he soon became the most daring member of the club – steering his team into risky courses which often resulted in damaged boats.
In less devilish ventures, Stephen also developed an interest in classical music, science fiction, and investigating the complexities of the universe. His pursuit of these new hobbies barely left him any time for actual studying. At most, he averaged about an hour a day focusing on school.
These unimpressive studying habits led to anxiety and sleepless nights before his final examination. If he was to attend the University of Cambridge to study Cosmology, he needed to pass his degree with first honors. Which he did, in 1962.
Facing a life-changing diagnosis
In 1963, Stephen’s postgraduate studies began at Cambridge – but so did the first signs of his disease. During his last year at Oxford, he had noticed a few unfamiliar difficulties while rowing. Sometimes he would trip for no apparent reason or slur his speech unexpectedly. But Stephen decided to keep these symptoms to himself.
One afternoon, while walking down the stairs at his University, he lost his balance and tumbled down the steps, hitting his head. Although shaken by the event, he chalked his embarrassing fall to a momentary distraction and thought nothing more of it.
However, it didn’t take long for his symptoms to worsen. His speech became noticeably slurred and he was becoming much ‘clumsier’ than usual. It was only when he returned home for Christmas that his family caught on to his symptoms. They promptly sent him to the doctor, where Stephen was tediously examined for two long weeks.
Just after his 21st birthday, Stephen Hawking was given the devastating news that he had ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). A neurodegenerative disease where sufferers progressively lose control over their voluntary muscles. His doctor gave him two years to live.
Stephen Hawking now spent his days in his hospital bed, among the beeps of machines and the occasional bustle of passing nurses. He lay there thinking about his studies, his hobbies, and the intriguing girl he met at the New Years party. It all seemed so pointless now. Why bother doing anything when he was just going to die within two years?
He turned to look at the patient in the bed next to him, seeking a distraction. The patient in the bed nearby was a young boy suffering from Leukemia. Gradually, the boy’s saddening state pushed Stephen to see his own diagnosis in a different light. Maybe earning his PhD and marrying that girl wouldn’t be so pointless after all. In fact, there were many things he wanted to do with his life – before it was all over.
So Stephen Hawking left his hospital bed, proposed to Jane Wilde, and returned to Cambridge to continue his studies. After all,
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
– Stephen Hawking
Reshaping Cosmology while battling ALS
In 1966, Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis on ‘Properties Of Expanding Universes‘ was approved. He was now happily married, determined to continue his research, and optimistic about his unpredictable future.
His initial work sent the first of many shockwaves throughout the scientific community. In 1974, he was elected as one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society thanks to his unprecedented radiation theory. This same year, Stephen Hawking also accepted a professorship at the California Institute of Technology. He continued his work with renowned physicists on groundbreaking theories that would forever change the way we perceive the universe.
But his achievements were on par with the progress of his disease. Stephen began to use a cane to help him walk. His speech became so slurred that only close family and friends could understand him. Soon enough, he needed help to get out of bed and feed himself. But Stephen was fiercely independent and determined to not be restricted by his disability.
After much persuasion, he was finally convinced to use a wheelchair to aid his mobility. As is now characteristic of Stephen Hawking, he quickly became notorious for his wild wheelchair driving. His biting wit and popularity among his colleagues continued, but his illness and occasional brashness distanced him from many close friends.
In 1979, Stephen Hawking became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a distinguished post once held by Isaac Newton. He has since received a host of honorary titles, degrees, and awards from major universities and scientific societies. His academic career was shooting upwards, but his physical health was declining.
In 1985, he suffered a life-threatening bout of Pneumonia and required a tracheotomy – which removed the last remnants of his speech. Stephen Hawking’s ability to work was in great peril, and he now required around-the-clock care. A handful of nurses and a select few of his graduate students rose up to the occasion.
The following year, his dire case of speech impediment was helped by a voice synthesizer. This device allowed him to select words on a screen that would then be read out by a computer. Being Stephen, he frequently put his new toy to use by telling groan-worthy “science jokes”. At the end of one particular interview, he asked an unsuspecting crewman “What is a black hole?” After a dramatic pause, he quipped “Something you find in a black sock.” Reportedly, Stephen’s favorite joke is to say “Merry Christmas” during inappropriate occasions.
When he first received the device, he could use his eyes to control his writing, but today he can only move a muscle in his right cheek to spell out his words. It can take him a full minute to write a word, ten minutes per sentence. It’s a long exercise of patience, inducing much frustration and sometimes loneliness as some people grew too impatient and would simply leave him. A few of his current carers now admit they got their job due to their ability to wait patiently while Stephen writes his next words.
But this setback in his writing didn’t stop Stephen Hawking from documenting his astounding research. In 1988, he became a sort of “physics rockstar” with his controversial book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. To his surprise, this complex book on Cosmology sold over a million copies – becoming the best-selling nonfiction book. Even more surprisingly, it maintained this position for over a year.
Celebrity status and lessons learned
Despite his worsening condition, Stephen Hawking has written and published over 15 books which remain hugely popular today. Their lasting impact on the fields of modern astronomy and theoretical physics have made him one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time. Moreover, his efforts in making this knowledge widely accessible to the non-scientific community have also made him into the best-known living physicist in the world.
Now at 76 years old, Stephen Hawking has long exceeded his life expectancy. His disability is far from improving, but he remains determined to live his days as fully as possible – while furthering his lifelong aim to bring science to the public.
With the same adventurous spirit as in his Oxford days – Stephen has traveled the world, been submerged in a submarine, and been suspended in a zero gravity flight. He has lent his voice and personality to popular TV series such as The Simpsons, The Big Bang, and Star Trek. His wit and child-like humor have stolen the spotlight in interviews with the likes of Conan O’Brien and John Oliver. He hosted and narrated Genius, a series on tackling historically scientific questions. Stephen has even seen his marriage and career unfold before his eyes during the Oscar-winning portrayal of his life The Theory of Everything. His far-reaching influence, teachings, and inspiration to others continue to make waves in both academic and popular spaces.
Nowadays, he writes books with his daughter Lucy to indulge the curious minds of children about the universe they live in. A sort of “Harry Potter” but replacing magic with science. His next adventure? Going into space.
Stephen Hawking may be confined to a wheelchair, but he never stops moving. His disease was but a test of patience and adaptability – not an obstacle. He is living proof that no matter how bad it gets, success is always possible through determination, focus, and making the best out of every situation. Of course, having a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
“Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. IT matters that you don’t just give up.”
– Stephen Hawking
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