In March of 2009, I had the immense pleasure and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a lecture by Hawking at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA. The lecture, entitled “Why We Should Go Into Space,” allowed the Lucasian professor the chance to share his thoughts on the status of NASA’s space program, whether little green men may be a realistic possibility, and the overwhelming need for America to encourage its youth towards education in math and science. A shortened version of the lecture was also given for NASA’s 50th Anniversary. Living in Hollywood, CA, I have been fortunate to brush elbows with stars of stage and screen; however, I have never been so in awe of another person as I was with Stephen Hawking. Listening to the musings of the world’s most brilliant physicist, I was both inspired and moved by not only the content of his lecture, but by the strength, courage, and humor of a man who has had a life-long battle with ALS.
Having been born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, it seemed a coincidence that Stephen Hawking shared the same caliber of scientific brilliance as that of his predecessor. On January 8, 1942, Hawking was born near London to an already intellectual family; his father was a physician and his mother was a political lobbyist. After showing an interest in science and mathematics at an early age, it was only a matter of time before he successfully constructed a functioning computer. By 1959, Hawking won a scholarship to Oxford University, “where his intellectual capabilities became more noticeable” (“Stephen Hawking”). During his third year at Oxford, signs of illness began to show through his everyday physical activity. However, Hawking continued with his studies and graduated with honors from Oxford in 1962. After graduation, he attended Cambridge University and pursued a Ph.D. in cosmology. While at Cambridge, further signs of illness were presented, forcing Hawking to seek medical help (“Stephen Hawking”).
While his initial attempts to interpret his health problems seemed futile, Stephen Hawking struggled to cope with his condition. Following his 21st birthday, he sought answers from his family physician and numerous specialists to explain his sudden illness. After two weeks of testing, the only diagnosis reached by the physicians was that it was not multiple sclerosis. The disappointing news greatly affected the already-anxious Hawking:
After all that, they didn’t tell me what I had... 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 they didn’t expect them to have much effect. I didn’t feel like asking for more details, because they were obviously bad. (Hawking “ALS”)
Realizing that he was afflicted with an incurable disease, Hawking was at first plagued by horrific nightmares and unending hopelessness. With what would later become known by many names (Motor Neuron Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he slowly became affected by muscle deterioration and vocal slurring. Following the advice of his doctors, Hawking continued his research at Cambridge with only mild optimism.
The opportunity to live a normal life finally appeared to be within his grasp, as Hawking drew excitement from every aspect of his life. His depression faded quickly upon an engagement to wife Jane Wilde and offer of employment with the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. After receiving his Ph.D., Hawking joined the staff of the Institute in 1968. There he applied the laws of thermodynamics to black holes, which had become a major interest to him during his doctoral studies (Benford).
Shortly after publishing his first book, Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, Hawking made a number of startling discoveries concerning black holes, as well as the connection between relativity and quantum mechanics. “This contributed enormously to what physicists call Grand Unified Theory, a way of explaining, in one equation, all physical matter in the universe” (“Stephen Hawking”). While it was believed that nothing could escape black holes, Hawking suggested that subatomic particles could be emitted under special circumstances. His suggestion proved to be true, causing the emission to be name Hawking Radiation (White, Gribbin). These pioneering ideas helped him to become well known within his field before he was even 30 years old.
In what could possibly be known as his most successful period, Hawking received the prestigious recognition in the field of theoretical physics. After being named a fellow of the Royal Society, he received the Albert Einstein Award at the age of only 32. He was also appointed to the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1979, the same position held by Sir Isaac Newton 300 years earlier. During that time, Hawking continued his work on black holes and the string theory, but devoted much of his time to questioning the validity of the Big Bang Theory. Having been widely accepted by that time, he suggested an alternative theory that, “there was never a start and would be no end, but just change - a constant transition of one “universe” giving away to another through glitches in space-time” (“Stephen Hawking”).
Amidst all of his success, Lou Gehrig’s disease increasingly limited Hawking’s speech and mobility. He was confined to a wheelchair and forced to use interpreters as his speech became more and more slurred. Catching pneumonia in 1985, he was forced to have a tracheotomy operation which left him unable to speak permanently. For a short time, he communicated by spelling out words letter by letter and also through facial expression. Unable to continue with a large part of his research, Hawking was surprised by the help of Walter Woltosz, a computer programmer who offered the service of his Equalizer speech program. By pressing a hand-held switch, Hawking could select words from a series of menus on the computer screen which would be sent to a speech synthesizer. This process was improved by David Mason of Cambridge Adaptive Communication, who fitted a small portable computer and speech synthesizer to Hawking’s wheelchair. With all of this assistance, Hawking only made one complaint. “The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent” (Hawking “ALS”).
In 1988 Hawking published his most successful book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, which quickly became a best-seller. With this book, he became a household name and recognized as a genius by both experts and general audiences alike. Since that time, Hawking has traveled the globe giving lectures of his scientific ideas of the universe, its creation, and the behind its existence. Hawking has published multiple best-selling books including Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays and The Universe in a Nutshell in 2001. He and his wife Jane have three children and one grandchild (White, Gribbin). Obviously, life has hardly been slowed by his battle with ALS.
Through an equal combination of hardships and incredible successes, Stephen Hawking has become one of the most identifiable geniuses of our time. Contributing to the field of theoretical physics with his theories on black holes, the Grand Unified Theory, and the Big Bang, Hawking earned the admiration and respect of his fellow colleagues and the entire world. What made his accomplishments that much greater was his coincidental battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which hardly slowed his drive for knowledge. While continuing his work to this day, Hawking remains focused on his life-long purpose. “My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all” (“Stephen Hawking”).
For those interested in Hawking’s work that expands beyond his books, I would encourage you to check out Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything, a two-part DVD from 2007. In this interesting and thought-provoking DVD, Hawking and his colleagues discuss the sought-after “theory of everything,” which would explain everything in the universe in a single equation. Much like his previous works, the complex theories of these brilliant minds are broken down into easily understood theories for the casual viewer.
Hawking, Stephen. “My experiences with ALS.” Professor Stephen Hawking Web Pages. 26 January 2003. <http://www.hawking.org.uk/disable/disable.html>.
“Stephen Hawking.” A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. 1998 WBGH. 26 January 2003. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bphawk.html>.
Benford, Gregory. “Leaping the Abyss.” Reason Online. 25 January 2003. <http://reason.com/0204/fe.gb.leaping.shtml>.
White, Michael and Gribbin, John. Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, Second Edition. New York: Joseph Henry Press, 2002.