Stephen Hawking: Life, Accomplishments & Facts
Stephen Hawking was the famous English physicist and cosmologist who rose to huge acclaim after publishing several innovative works on black holes and other cosmological events in the universe. According to the University of Cambridge graduate, black holes emit a kind of radiation which experts now call the Hawking radiation.
Born in Oxford, England, Hawking’s development was characterized by an insatiable appetite to completely understand the universe. The extraordinary physicist always maintained that his goal was to find answers to questions about why the universe existed at all, and why it existed in the way it does.
In spite of spending more than half of his adult life confined to a wheel chair (since his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS), Hawking remained determined to push the boundaries of physics and by so doing became one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century.
World History explores the history and accomplishments of Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical scientists and cosmologists of the modern era.
Stephen Hawking: Fast Facts
Date of Birth: January 8, 1942
Place of birth: Oxford, England, United Kingdom
Died: March 14, 2018
Place of Death: Cambridge, England, United Kingdom
Parents: Isobel and Frank Hawking
Siblings: 3 – Mary, Philippa, and Edward
Spouses: Elaine Mason (1995-2007), Jane Wilde (1965-1995)
Children: Robert (born in 1967), Lucy (born in 1970), and Timothy (born in 1979).
Education: University of Cambridge, Oxford University, St Albans School, Hertfordshire
Doctoral Thesis: “Properties of Expanding Universes” (1965)
Most famous work: ‘A Brief History of Time’ (1988)
Notable awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009), Copley Medal (2006), Albert Einstein Medal (1979), Eddington Medal (1975)
Early life and education
Stephen Hawking, the first born child of his parents, was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. Unbeknownst to many people, the acclaimed cosmologist took immense pride in the fact that he was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Hawking was born at a time when Europe was blighted by World War II. His parents were Frank and Isobel Hawking, both Oxford University graduates. His father Frank Hawking worked as a medical researcher in London. Due to his father’s specialty in medical research, he was encouraged to study medicine; however, Stephen Hawking set his mind on the cosmos and unravelling the mysteries of the universe.
Stephen Hawking attended St. Albans School, Hertfordshire, where he was surprisingly a below-average student, often finishing bottom of his class. Although a very bright young man, Hawking was probably frustrated by the slow-paced nature of the curricula. It has been stated that he and his friends took to making their own board games and building some sort of computer out of scraps they found in the junk yard. They built those devices to help them solve a bunch of mathematical problems and equations.
In 1959, he enrolled at the University of Oxford. The 17-year-old wanted to study mathematics; however, he ended up in the physics department as Oxford wasn’t offering any degree program in mathematics at the time. He was not exactly a hardworking student at Oxford as academic life on campus appeared extremely easy for him. After graduating with honors from Oxford in 1962, Hawking proceeded to the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. in general relativity cosmology.
In 1968, the prestigious Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge honored him as its newest member. From then onward, Hawking began making waves in the field of cosmology. For example, in 1973, Hawking co-authored (with G.F.R. Ellis) a critically acclaimed book titled The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time.
Perhaps the biggest honor he received in the 1970s came when he was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, one of the most distinguished academic positions in Cambridge. He also received numerous awards in that decade, including the Heineman Prize (1976), the Hughes Medal (1976), Albert Einstein Medal (1979), and Eddington Medal (1975).
Notable books written by Stephen Hawking
Think about Stephen Hawking and what immediately comes to mind is his famous 1988 science book titled A Brief History of Time. The book was a huge success both in the UK and abroad. It was precise and very informative, giving the mass audience explanation to fundamental and age-old questions about the cosmos, the existence of a divine being, and what all that meant for humanity’s future. A Brief History of Time, which was on the London Sunday Times’ best-seller list for close to five years, certainly catapulted Hawking to a distinguished position in the world of science, making him the most recognizable individual in his field.
Hawking’s A Brief History of Time has been so impressive and critically acclaimed that it has to date sold several millions of copies. The book has been translated into more than 35 languages, making it accessible to an even wider audience across the globe.
Other notable and widely successful books written by Stephen Hawking include: The Universe in a Nutshell (2001) and The Grand Design (2010). All in all, the renowned physicist wrote or co-wrote an impressive 15 books in his lifetime.
Stephen Hawking’s diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease
Beginning around 1960, the young scientist started noticing how slurry his speech was becoming with every passing day; the number of times he knocked his feet against the furniture also increased. Not a day passed when he did not trip or fall while making his way to lessons at Oxford. When he could no longer hide those symptoms, his father took him, then 21, to a number of medical experts.
About a year after graduating from Oxford, Stephen Hawking’s life was turned upside down when doctors revealed that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The simplest explanation of Lou Gehrig’s disease sees the immobilization of the individual’s nerves that are responsible for controlling the body’s muscles. In Hawking’s case, the medical experts gave the physicist a dire prognosis, stating that he had just less than three years to live. The news was a hard pill to swallow for not just Hawking, but his entire family.
Refusing to let the gloomy picture painted by the doctors get him down, Hawking went about his academic life as normal as possible. One of the reasons why the brilliant physicist didn’t let his disability get the better of him had to do with the fact that he roomed with a young boy who suffered from blood cancer (leukemia). Compared to that malignant and devastating cancer, Hawking felt that his illness was not severe. He reasoned that there were worse possible things that could have happened to him. Hence he soldiered on with an even clearer purpose for his life.
His diagnosis with ALS in all sense of purpose gave him a greater impetus to apply himself even more into his chosen field of study. It was simply a blessing in disguise, as Hawking stated on so many occasions. The fact that his doctors gave him a couple of years to live meant that he was even more determined to complete his doctoral thesis and live his mark in the field of science.
Use of the wheel chair and speech synthesizer
Approximately five years into his diagnosis, Hawking had not only beaten all the odds that were stuck against him, but he had also matured into a fine scientist. He steadily began producing one insightful and innovative academic papers after the other. Unfortunately, his disease had forced him into a wheelchair, starkly limiting the physical activities of this genius scientist. Barring the worsening physical condition, the good thing was that the harmful effect of the disease appeared to be slowing down. This made Hawking and his family more hopeful that he would live past adulthood.
By the end of the 1970s, the scientist, who had just been appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, needed the constant assistance of caregiver. He could barely get out of bed or feed himself without a caregiver. Additionally, his speech had become so slurry that he could not be understood by those who did not know him well enough. Half a decade later, he would lose his voice for good after a tracheotomy procedure.
For someone as brilliant Hawking, it did not take too long for his physical and speech impediments to catch the attention of many scientists and charitable organizations. In California, for example, a leading computer programmer was ready to give Hawking a boost with a very innovative speech aid device that allowed the scientist to communicate using the movement of his eye or head. Stephen Hawking was given a speech synthesizer that enabled him to pick his words (using a sensor) on a computer screen.
This period marked the beginning of Hawking’s most critically acclaimed works and books. With the help of a few scientific gadgets, and a number of assistants, the physicist was able to write groundbreaking ideas and papers about black holes in the universe.
Stephen Hawking’s most famous scientific works and black holes
Stephen Hawking’s 1974 research on black holes received a lot of admiration as the brilliant cosmologist showed to the scientific community the true nature of black holes in the universe. Prior to his work, the commonly held view was that black holes were strange vacuums that consumed everything that entered them, including light. Hawking’s research begged to differ. He showed to the world how some elements of matter, i.e. radiation, could break free from the immense gravitational force of a black hole.
According to the widely accepted theory in the scientific community, black holes are formed when a dead star collapses on itself thereby creating a tiny place in space where gravity is so enormous that not even light can escape. The absence of light makes a black hole invisible, although scientists have special equipment that can help how objects near a black hole respond under such unimaginable gravitational pull. According to NASA, a gargantuan black hole (i.e. a supermassive black hole) exists at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
Hawking’s Radiation and other notable accomplishments
By the turn of the 21st century, Hawking was arguably the most leading expert on black holes. His research on black holes and the radiation that black holes emit made him a household name.
At a conference in Sweden in 2015, he explained how black holes shouldn’t be seen as an inescapable prison. He went on to suggest that information that make their way into a black hole get stored in a place close to what physicists call the “event horizon”. On many occasions, he avoided ruling out the possibility that the information in a black hole could make its way into another universe.
The most important thing about his breakthrough research is that it created a phenomenon where young people and kids across the world started taking deep interest in science and the cosmos. He showed just how physical disability could not be a stumbling block in an individual’s pursuit for greatness.
Perhaps, this was the greatest achievement of Stephen Hawking, aside from the fact that he was a recipient of a plethora of awards and illustrious titles, both at home and abroad.
At just the age of 32, Stephen Hawking was honored with a membership to the very prestigious Royal Society, a British scientific institution whose sole goal is to advance the course of humanity through scientific excellence. Around that same period, he also received Albert Einstein Award, having been praised for his lifelong effort to bring science to the public.
During his career, he was called to serve as a professor at prestigious universities in the U.S., including Caltech in Pasadena, California. Hawking was also a visiting professor at Caius College in Cambridge.
For someone who distinguished himself in the study of the laws of physics, it was a very heartwarming scene when the Kennedy Space Center in Florida invited him in 2007 to get a feel of an environment without gravity. The physicist spent about two hours in a zero-G Boeing 727 over the Atlantic Ocean.
Stephen Hawking was a long advocate for the human race colonizing other planets in not just our solar system but beyond. He opined that life on our Earth hanged in a very precarious state as humanity could be wiped off the face of the planet through catastrophic events such as a nuclear war, a never-ending global warming, or say a genetically created virus. As a result, he was always quick to use his fame and knowledge to support people like Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group) and Elon Musk in their effort to make space tourism a reality.
Hawking’s biopic: The Theory of Everything (2014)
The 2014 film The Theory of Everything, which starred fellow British Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, was based on the life of Stephen Hawking and the challenges he and his first wife, Jane Wilde, had to go through.
The movie was hugely popular not just in the scientific community, receiving numerous awards for aptly showing the struggles the scientist had to endure before he became extremely successful.
The film, which earned more than $120 million worldwide, was praised for its fine cast performances. It earned lead stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively. The film was also nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking, bagged took home the award for Best Actor on the night (i.e. the 87th Academy Awards). He also earned the Best Actor award (Motion Picture) at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards.
How did Hawking die?
When the tragic news of the death of Stephen Hawking was announced by a family spokesman, Lawrence Krauss, a famed theoretical physicist and long-time admirer of the works of Hawking, stated that “a star had just gone out in the cosmos”. Other notable figures in the scientific community, from Neil de Grease Tyson to Professor Roger Penrose, expressed their heartfelt condolences to the Hawking family. Similarly, the former President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees, paid a a deeply heartfelt tribute to Professor Hawking.
Stephen Hawking, who died on March 14, 2018, was praised for his over half a century commitment to unravelling the secrets of the universe. The non-scientific community, including many Hollywood stars, like British actors Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, tweeted similar praises for the genius who inspired millions of people across the world.
It was stated that the ashes of the world-renowned scientist would be interred in his home country at the Westminster Abbey in London. It was a fitting honor for the physicist to be interred alongside great English scientists like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton.
More Stephen Hawking facts
Over the course of his life, Stephen Hawking made a number of TV appearances in Hollywood. He was the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of his era. Many even took to calling him a rock-star scientist as he made guest appearances on shows such as The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. He also appeared on comedy shows such as Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
In 1992, Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, made a documentary about the physicist life and career. The documentary, titled A Brief History of Time, received positive reviews as it showed the world things that weren’t known about Hawking.
During his life, he was a bit skeptical about artificial intelligence (AI). He recommended that more rigorous research ought to be done to dispel many lingering fears the public sometimes have about AI and its associated dangers. He did however state that the creation of AI would be a huge step in the evolution of human beings as species. He cautioned that such invention and advancement could usurp human beings in all spheres of life if care is not taking. He went as far as saying that those AI could come out with weapons of mass destruction that we humans would have no clue about.
His 1965 doctoral thesis “Properties of Expanding Universes” broke the internet, as many would often say in pop culture. The thesis, which was posted online by Hawking’s alma mater in October 2017, went on to receive tremendous traffic that completely crashed the university’s website in just a few hours after its release.
Stephen Hawking’s spouses and children
In 1963, Hawking met his future wife Jane Wilde, who was by then an undergraduate student of languages. Two years later, the two tied the knot and went on to have three children – Robert (born in 1967), Lucy (born in 1970), and Timothy (born in 1979).
After close to three decades of marriage, Hawking separated with Jane and married one of his caretaker nurses, Elaine Mason, in 1995. It was alleged at that Elaine tried to put a wedge between Hawking and his children. There were also some allegations that Elaine at some point physically abused Hawking. That matter was put to rest after Hawking came out to refute those allegations against Elaine. Regardless, the marriage still crumbled as Hawking and Elaine filed for divorce in 2006.
Following his second divorce, Hawking and his first wife and children patched things up perfectly. He and his daughter Lucy co-authored five science novels aimed at whipping children’s interest in science.