“Stephen Hawking” is probably the most renowned theoretical physicist after Einstein till date, we have to thank the fans of The Big Bang Theory, both the show and the science for his popularity. Stephen Hawking was born on 8th January, 1942 in Oxford, England, that’s exactly 3 centuries since the physicist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei passed away, co-incidence? Now many of us know him, for what he his today, but like every individual he too faced his own share of struggles in life. Here are a few excerpts from his early life, that shaped him to the celebrity status now.
- Although at school he was known as “Einstein”, Hawking was not initially successful academically. With time, he began to show considerable aptitude for scientific subjects, and inspired by Tahta, decided to study mathematics at university.Hawking’s father advised him to study medicine, concerned that there were few jobs for mathematics graduates. As Mathematics was not available in Oxford then, he decided to pursue Physics.
- From 1958, with the help of his friends and mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, he built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.
During his time in Oxford, Hawking made more effort “to be one of the boys” in his second and third year. He developed into a popular, lively and witty college member, interested in classical music and science fiction. Part of the transformation resulted from his decision to join the college Boat Club, where he coxed a rowing team. The rowing trainer at the time noted that Hawking cultivated a daredevil image, steering his crew on risky courses that led to damaged boats.
- Hawking has estimated that he studied about a thousand hours during his three years at Oxford. These unimpressive study habits made sitting his finals a challenge, and he decided to answer only theoretical physics questions rather than those requiring factual knowledge. Anxious, he slept poorly the night before the examinations, and the final result was on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, making a viva (oral examination) necessary.
- Hawking was concerned that he was viewed as a lazy and difficult student, so when asked at the oral to describe his future plans, he said, “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 held in higher regard than he believed: as Berman commented, the examiners “were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves”.
- Hawking’s first year as a doctoral student was difficult. He was initially disappointed to find that he had been assigned Dennis William Sciama, one of the founders of modern cosmology, as a supervisor rather than noted astronomer Fred Hoyle, and he found his training in mathematics inadequate for work in general relativity and cosmology.
- During his final year in Oxford Hawking started showing symptoms of a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that has gradually paralysed him over the decades.[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” class=”” width=””]The diagnosis of motor neurone disease came when Hawking was 21, in 1963. At the time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years.[/box]
- Hawking was, however, fiercely independent and unwilling to accept help or make concessions for his disabilities. Hawking preferred to be regarded 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.” His wife Jane Hawking later noted that “Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I’ve called it both at one time or another.” He required much persuasion to accept the use of a wheelchair at the end of the 1960s, but ultimately became notorious for the wildness of his wheelchair driving.
- After overcoming the disappointment caused by his disease, Hawking started developing a reputation for brilliance and brashness when he publicly challenged the work of Fred Hoyle and his student Jayant Narlikar at a lecture in June 1964.
- Hawking’s speech deteriorated, and by the late 1970s he could only be understood by his family and closest friends. To communicate with others, someone who knew him well would translate his speech into intelligible speech. For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card.
The physicist Werner Israel later compared the achievements to Mozart composing an entire symphony in his head.
- In 1986 he received a computer program called the “Equalizer” from Walter Woltosz, CEO of Words Plus. In a method he uses to this day, Hawking could now simply press a switch to select phrases, words or letters from a bank of about 2,500–3,000 that are scanned. Hawking commented that “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice.” The voice he uses has an American accent and is no longer produced. Despite the availability of other voices, Hawking has retained this original voice, saying that he prefers it and identifies with it. At this point, Hawking activated a switch using his hand and could produce up to 15 words a minute.
- Hawking gradually lost the use of his hand, and in 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute. With this decline there is a risk of him developing locked-in syndrome, so Hawking is collaborating with researchers on systems that could translate his brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations. By 2009 he could no longer drive his wheelchair independently. He has increased breathing difficulties, requiring a ventilator at times and has been hospitalised several times.
In spite of being wheelchair bound and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication Stephen Hawking continues to combine family life (he has three children and three grandchildren), and his research into theoretical physics together with an extensive programme of travel and public lectures.
- After leaving the Institute of Astronomy in 1973, Stephen came to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1979, and held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from 1979 until 2009. The chair was founded in 1663 with money left in the will of the Reverend Henry Lucas who had been the Member of Parliament for the University. It was first held by Isaac Barrow and then in 1669 by Isaac Newton.
- Stephen Hawking has worked on the basic laws which govern the universe. With Roger Penrose he showed that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes. These results indicated that it was necessary to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory, the other great Scientific development of the first half of the 20th Century. One consequence of such a unification that he discovered was that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. Another conjecture is that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time.
- His many publications include The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime with G F R Ellis, General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey, with W Israel, and 300 Years of Gravity, with W Israel. Among the popular books Stephen Hawking has published are his best seller A Brief History of Time, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, The Universe in a Nutshell, The Grand Design and My Brief History.
- Professor Hawking has twelve honorary degrees. He was awarded the CBE in 1982, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1989. He is the recipient of many awards, medals and prizes, is a Fellow of The Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences.
Stephen Hawking is the living example to prove that no matter what difficulties life puts in front of us, we can never give up! At any instant of time in your journey towards greatness, if you feel that your soul is being drained by something away from destination, just remember his quote, “If you feel you are in a black hole, never give up. There is a way out.” He continues to be a source of inspiration for many in life and he still hopes to make it into space one day!
“Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and Life is empty without it” – Stephen Hawking