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This chapter talks about the life of one of the greatest modern scientists, Stephen Hawking. Although faced with a terrible disease that crippled him, Hawking continued his quest for knowledge and ended up becoming one of the most prominent and well-known figures in science.
On April 29, 1980, scientists and university dignitaries gathered to listen to the inaugural lecture by a new Professor of Mathematics, called Stephen Hawking, then thirty-eight. The lecture was called ‘Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?’
Hawking surprised his listeners by announcing that he thought it was and invited them to find a theory that explains the universe, and everything that happens in it. He sat silently in a wheelchair while one of his students read his lecture. Just by appearance, Hawking didn’t seem like he could lead any adventure.
Early Life and College Years
Stephen William Hawking was born on 8 January, 1942, in Oxford, England. Frank and Isobel Hawking, Stephen’s parents, were not rich, but they valued education. They planned for Stephen to go to the famous Westminster public school in London. But Stephen was ill at the time of the scholarship examination. So, he attended the local Saint Alban’s School.
At eight, he was thinking seriously about becoming a scientist. His father encouraged him to go into medicine like him, but Stephen found biology too indefinite. Young Stephen was just an ordinary school boy, slow in learning to read, and with horrible handwriting.
At fourteen, Stephen wanted to pursue mathematics and physics. His father was not happy because there were no jobs in mathematics except teaching. He also wanted his son to attend Oxford, his own college, and it offered no mathematics. Stephen followed his father’s advice and went to Oxford to study natural science, specializing in physics. He joined University College, his father’s college and the oldest at Oxford.
At first, he was sad and bored. But then he began enjoying Oxford. He became popular, had long hair, was famous for his wit, liked classical music and science fiction, and took part in sports.
He applied to do a Ph.D. at Cambridge and was accepted on condition that he got a ‘First’ from Oxford. But he ended up on the borderline between a first and a second. However, he was finally accepted because of a witty remark.
His first year at Cambridge was bad because of his lack of mathematical background, which made general relativity extremely tough. During his third year at Oxford, Hawking had started getting clumsy. This got worse at Cambridge.
Living with the Disease
Soon after his twenty-first birthday in 1963, he contracted a rare disease with no cure, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It caused a gradual disintegration of the nerve cells in the spinal cord and the brain. He went into a deep depression, confused about his future.
Hawking’s doctors hoped that his condition would stabilize, but it got worse. They informed him that he had only about two more years to live. Thankfully, progression of the disease slowed after those two years. Total disability and death were postponed for a while.
At a New Year’s party at Saint Alban’s, just before he entered the hospital for tests, Hawking met Jane Wilde. She liked his wit and thought he was interesting. When Jane met him again after his discharge from the hospital, he was in a pathetic state, but she was not put off by his physical or mental condition.
Hawking admired her optimism and their friendship developed slowly. He applied for a research fellowship at Caius, one of Cambridge colleges and was accepted. In July of 1965, Jane and he were married.
Hawking made his way around the University corridors with a cane, and spoke with a slight speech impediment. He daringly asked unexpected questions in sessions involving some of the world’s biggest scientists, while other young researchers were silent. His reputation as ‘a genius,’ ‘another Einstein,’ began then.
In 1980, a need for funds made him think of writing a book about the universe. He wrote the book to make science understandable to non-scientists. He completed the first draft in 1984 and made a trip to Switzerland. There he got pneumonia and was left on a life-support system. He got a tracheotomy which saved his life but left him mute.
Hawking could no longer breathe through his mouth and nose, but only through a permanent opening made in his throat. After many weeks of intensive care, he went home to Jane and his three children. He was still too weak and ill to continue his research. Walt Woltosz, a computer expert in California, sent him a programme called the Equalizer, which allowed Hawking to select words from the screen.
With the support of Hawking’s student Brian Whitt, A Brief History of Time was published in 1988. In September 2005, an abridged version was published. One will encounter many paradoxes in the book.
It is a miracle that Hawking has been able to achieve so much and is still alive. When you experience his intelligence and humour, you begin to take his grave physical problems no more seriously than he seems to himself.
Stephen Hawking has overcome his crippling disease to become the biggest figure in world physics.
Hawking continued towards his goal despite the struggles he faced, and ended up as one of the greatest minds of our time. His life and journey inspire us to do our best, notwithstanding the difficulties that lie in our path.