by Yasmine El-Geressi
Professor Stephen William Hawking, whose theory of black holes altered the course of modern scientific thought, and whose ability to convey abstract concepts of quantum physics to a mass audience made him a popular cultural figure, died on March 14, 2018 at the age of 76 in his home at Cambridge. His age at his death was one of the many marvels of a life full of them.
Diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at age 21, Hawking was told that he would live no more than three years. Hawking defied his doctors’ predictions by adding over 51 years to his predicted lifespan. During this time, Hawking not only made new discoveries in his field, but also exposed these ideas to an audience far beyond academic circles. He did so while disease continued to debilitate his body.
The British physicist was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxford, England. His father was a research biologist and his mother a medical research secretary. At the age of eleven, Stephen went to St. Albans School and then on to University College, Oxford; his father’s old college. As a student he was drawn to physics and maths as he believed they offered the most fundamental insights into the world. He had an active imagination, and he loved to play board games of his own invention and speculate about the stars. But nothing marked him out as special from his classmates or in his first term at Oxford University. After three years and not very much work, he was awarded a first class honours degree in natural science. He continued on to Cambridge, where he would earn his doctorate in cosmology.
Hawking first began to notice problems with his physical health while he was at Oxford—on occasion he would trip and fall, or slur his speech—he didn’t look into the problem until 1963, during his first year at Cambridge. It was at Cambridge where Hawking met his first wife, Jane Wilde, who he had three children with, and also where the disease that would afflict him for the rest of his life began to take serious hold of his body. By the time he earned his doctorate in 1966, he had difficulty walking; by 1969, he was wheelchair-bound and found everyday tasks more and more difficult to perform.
In a sense, Hawking’s disease helped turn him into the noted scientist he became. Before the diagnosis, Hawking hadn’t always focused on his studies. “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life,” he said. “There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.” With the sudden realization that he might not even live long enough to earn his PhD, Hawking poured himself into his work and research.
Deeply interested in how the universe began, as well as new theories about the nature of black holes, Hawking began to pick apart accepted notions of black hole behavior. Another young cosmologist, Roger Penrose, had earlier discovered groundbreaking findings about the fate of stars and the creation of black holes, which tapped into Hawking’s own fascination with how the universe began. The pair then began working together to expand upon Penrose’s earlier work, setting Hawking on a career course marked by awards, notoriety and distinguished titles that reshaped the way the world thinks about black holes and the universe. In 1974, Hawking’s research turned him into a celebrity within the scientific world when he showed that black holes aren’t the information vacuums that scientists had thought they were. He demonstrated that matter, in the form of radiation, can escape the gravitational force of a collapsed star. Hawking’s contributions to physics earned him many exceptional honours. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 32, and later earned the prestigious Albert Einstein Award, among other honors.
By the late 70s, Hawking required constant care. His speech had become hard to understand, his muscles atrophied to the point where even feeding himself and writing became impossible. Hawking feared being imprisoned in a body that he could no longer use to communicate his ideas and needs. A bout of pneumonia and resulting tracheotomy in 1985 made his condition even worse, and Hawking lost his voice entirely. Computer technology had been addressing the issues of helping the disabled to speak and function for a number of years, and Hawking immediately began to learn the slow system of choosing his letters and words from an on-screen menu. At first he was able to use his fingers to click, but eventually he would be forced to use a sensor attached to his cheek muscle. Speech technology software gave Hawking a speaking voice, a robotic sound that became so closely identified with him that he chose to continue using it even when other voice sounds became possible.
In the 1980s Hawking answered one of Einstein’s unanswered theories, the famous unified field theory. A complete unified theory includes the four main interactions known to modern physics. The unified theory explains the conditions that were present at the beginning of the universe as well as the features of the physical laws of nature. When humans develop the unified field theory, said Hawking, they will “know the mind of God.”
Hawking was a popular writer. His first book, “A Brief History of Time” was first published in 1988 and became an international best seller. In it, Hawking aimed to communicate questions about the birth and death of the universe to the layperson.
Hawking made several television appearances, including a playing hologram of himself on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a cameo on the television show “Big Bang Theory.” In 2014, a movie based on Hawking’s life was released. Called “The Theory of Everything,” the film drew praise from Hawking, who said it made him reflect on his own life.