Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science depicts the life and accomplishments of Stephen Hawking, a unique and towering figure in modern physics, perhaps the most famous scientist since Einstein. He has achieved far more than the vast majority of able-bodied people would ever have dreamed of accomplishing.
He has made fundamental breakthroughs in cosmology and, perhaps more than anyone else alive, he has pushed forward our understanding of the universe we live in. His brilliant work on black holes, the big bang, and quantum cosmology has already guaranteed his reputation among physicists and gives hope to those who might not otherwise have any with his success in his field despite his disabilities. Stephen William Hawking came from a family of intellects. He was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. Both of his parents, Frank and Isobel Hawking, had previously attended Oxford.
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When it came time for Stephen to attend school, his parents could not afford the tuition to Westminster, one of the best schools in the country. However, Stephen could attend on his own academic merit which would be tested by an entrance examination. The day he was to take the exam he fell ill and consequently never obtained a place at the Westminster Academy. Although disappointed, Stephen’s parents knew this small setback would not stop him.
Despite his failure, Stephen was still able to attend a local private school which was well-known as an academically excellent institute. He was eccentric and awkward, skinny and puny. His school uniform was always worn messily and he had inherited a slight lisp from his father. He was only a little above average in his class but had come to be regarded by his teachers as a bright student. Growing up he was always “a bit of a self-educator”.
He was interested in the stars, and his family used to lie out on the grass looking at the stars. His writing was appalling, and he was one of the only people at school to be issued with a copybook. He was never really good with his hands, and gave the impression of nervousness, being lanky and awkward in movement. However, his poor manual dexterity didn’t hold him back.
Stephen wanted to study mathematics and physics in university, but his father believed that there would not be any jobs in mathematics and so he took physics and chemistry, and only a bit of math. Another reason he didn’t study mathematics was the simple fact that when he attended University College, Oxford, in 1959 they didn’t offer a course in math. Stephen’s peers didn’t really realize how intelligent he was until his second year at University.
They were assigned thirteen honors questions in the area of Electricity and Magnetism, and while it took his friends a week to do almost three of them, he did the first ten in three hours. His reason for not finishing all thirteen? “Because I didn’t have time.” He was a coxswain in the Boat Club, and was of course a member of the Boyle Society, the University College’s physics society. Once at the university, when Stephen fell down a flight of stairs, he totally forgot who he was for a few minutes. It took two hours for him to! remember actually falling down the stairs. In his 3rd year, he began to notice that his hands were “less willing to cooperate than before.”
Stephen Hawking graduated from Oxford at the age of 20, in 1962, and took a trip to Persia with a friend. During the visit he got sick and shortly after returning to Cambridge to do Graduate work, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease). After being given two and one-half years to live, Stephen decided to not start any research as he was dying he may not even finish his Ph.D. He also had met Jane Wilde, his future wife, and wished to spend more time with her.
However, after a period of depression where he overcame his fears and misgivings concerning his life, he went on to complete his doctorate. His graduate thesis discussed what happened when a star burns off its fuel and collapses into a black hole. In 1965 he applied for and received a research fellowship at Caisus College, Cambridge and married Jane Wilde. He came to realize more and more how meaningful his life was.
His research at Caisus College was to be done in theoretical physics (quantum physics or cosmology). He chose to do it in cosmology partly because he found elementary particles unattractive and because he wanted to study with Fred Hoyle, the most distinguished British astronomer of the time, who was at Cambridge at the time. Hawking’s decision-making skills and ability to set high goals for himself have always helped him.
He was a pioneer in the field he studied and was recognized for his innovation. His research centered on black holes, and from the late 60’s onward he has been in the forefront of black hole research. One of his most significant discoveries was that black holes emitted radiation. This radiation is now known worldwide as ‘Hawking radiation’.
Based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, nothing can escape the event horizon of a black hole, but based on quantum mechanics, for every particle, there is an antiparticle. These particles are created at the same time, go through existence, and collide to annihilate each other. With respect to the black hole, one of these particles falls into it, leaving the other outside of the event horizon, emitting radiation. Although the scientific details are not directly relevant to his ability to work hard for the furthering of science, they show how difficult the subject matter he deals with is.
Though his ravaging disability struck blow after blow to his body, Hawking fought back twice as hard. By 1974, Hawking could still feed himself and get into and out of bed, but his wife Jane was finding it harder to take care of him and the 3 children, so he got one of his research students to live with them to help Jane out. Stephen was sincerely embarrassed at his need for outside assistance, but the courage it took for him to recognize the need and act on it shows how great of a man he truly was. In 1975 Hawking was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.
This highly honorable position was once held by Isaac Newton. There is a book that everyone who holds this title is supposed to sign, but after a year as Lucasian Professor, the board realized that Hawking had never signed it, and so he did. That was the last time he ever signed his name.
Stephen Hawking was a rebel; he fought against the status quo with his mind. In 1975, Hawking received a medal from Pope Paul VI, as “a young scientist for distinguished work”. There has been a long-standing conflict between the Catholic Church and cosmology, going back to Galileo. When they went to the Vatican, he saw Galileo’s Recantation (the document of Galileo’s recanting on his theory that the earth went around the sun, assumedly under the pressure of the church). Stephen has a great affinity for Galileo, as he was born 300 years, to the day, after Galileo’s death.
In 1981 Stephen was in the Vatican attending a conference in cosmology. When granted an audience with the Pope, he was told that it was OK to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang but to not inquire about the Big Bang itself, as it was the moment of creation, and therefore the work of God. His talk at the conference was on the possibility that space-time was finite without boundary (i.e., no beginning, no end, no creation).
Fortunately, the Pope wasn’t able to attend the conference. In 1986 Stephen again met with the Pope, when he was admitted to the Pontifical Academy of Science.
Hawking’s perseverance and courage he has shown is undeniably exemplary. In 1982, faced with the fees of his daughter’s schooling, he decided to write his famous book A Brief History of Time. While in Switzerland, after he finished a first draft of the book, he developed pneumonia and had to undergo a lifesaving tracheotomy, which removed his ability to speak. He soon after started using the Perspex Device, which is basically a sheet of Plexiglas with letters on it such that when he looks at a letter you can see which one he’s looking at.
Conversing letter-by-letter was tedious, and he moved on to a computer program that allowed him to pick words from a series of menus, accompanied by a voice synthesizer attached to his chair. He can now speak up to fifteen words a minute and can save them on disk if he wants. The only bug in the program, he feels, is that it gives him an American accent.
A Brief History of Time was meant to explain the basic ideas of laws that govern the universe. Stephen once said, “Equations are necessary if you are doing accountancy, but they are the boring part of Mathematics.
Most of the interesting ideas can be conveyed by words or pictures”. The book was published on April Fool’s Day, 1988 (6 years after he started writing it). Since then it has been translated into 30 languages and has sold over 6 million copies (1 copy for every 907 people). A film has also been made, as well as A Brief History of Time: A Readers Companion (“a book about the film about the book).
As in Hawking’s life, success is often the result of hard work and dedication. Hawking was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He also attended the induction of Prince Charles into the Royal Society a year or two after his own induction, at which time he ran over Prince Charles’ toes with his wheelchair. His humor is always cheerful and welcome when he is among his friends.
“If we find the complete theory explaining all aspects of the universe, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God,” comments Hawking.
Stephen believes that he is no different than anyone else. He also believes that science is for everybody and not just a few scientists. If ever there is a complete theory of the universe, he believes that it should be understandable by everyone and discussed by everyone. Michael White and John Gribbin related the accomplishments of this remarkable man by sharing both his traditional and untraditional ways of life and gave us Stephen Hawking’s lifestyle as an example for our own.
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