Stephen Hawking was an English cosmologist, theoretical physicist and author who served as the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death. He also taught Mathematics at Cambridge from 1979 to 2009.
Though his subject matter wasn't what many would expect to become commercially successful, he was. His book A Brief History of Time was a bestseller for 237 weeks, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was ranked 25 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons in 2002.
Hawking was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1963, early-onset-slow-progressing at the time. He was paralyzed slowly over the years and decades. He was able to continue talking after he lost his ability to speak through a speech-generating device.
After living with the disease for 50 years, he passed at the age of 76 on March 14, 2018, 2 years ago today.
Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxford. Growing up, the family was considered extremely intelligent and some found them to be eccentric. They were living on frugal means and were big readers. His parents, despite their financial constraints, both attended the University of Oxford, with his father studying medicine and his mother studying philosophy, politics and economics.
Hawking began school but their "progressive methods" were blamed for his failure to learn how to read. He attended 2 different schools Radlett School and St. Albans School) after passing his test early. His father wanted him to attend Westminister School, because of the values he placed on education for his children, but his he was sick on the day of the scholarship exam, and without the ability to pay for the school without the scholarship, so he returned to St. Albans School.
There, he remained close with his friends. They played board games, made fireworks, model airplanes, and talked extensively about Christianity and other deep topics. With the help of their teacher, they built a computer with various recycled components.
The kids at school called him "Einstein" but he wasn't initially successful in school. But over time, he began to take interest and show considerable skills in science and math. His father encouraged him to study medicine, as a mathematics degree wouldn't do much for him.
He started at University College, Oxford in October 1959 at 17, though his father had pushed him to wait another year. He was bored, finding the work to be too easy. But in his next few years, he made more an effort, where he became popular and lively upon joining the University College Boat Club where he was a part of the rowing crew.
He became a doctoral student and was disappointed that his professor was a founder of modern cosmology s opposed to an astronomer, and he thought his math training wouldn't be adequate for work in cosmology.
Around this time is when he was diagnosed with his motor neurone disease, and he became depressed. He continued on with his studies, but felt there was no point. But he progressed very slowly, more slowly than predicted. He was initially predicted only 2 years to live. With his supervisor's encouragement, he continued working and gained his reputation as brilliant and brash after publicly challenging the work of the astronomer he had wanted to work with at a lecture.
His thesis was about a theorem of spacetime singularity in the center of black holes, and he applied this to the whole universe. It was approved in 1966.
Hawking had met his future wife Jane Wilde at a party in 1962, a year before his diagnosis. Despite that, the couple engaged in 1964, prepared for anything life would throw at them with his disease. She gave him, according to him, something to live for. They married in July of 1965.
They lived in Cambridge and during their first few years of marriage, he was within walking distance of his school and Jane lived in London during the week while she finished her degree. They traveled to the US a few times for conferences and other physics-related gatherings. Jane started her PhD in mediaeval Spanish poetry. They had 3 children together, Robert in 1967, Lucy in 1969 and Timothy in 1979.
In 1977, Jane met an organist who she slowly developed feelings for. According to her, he was accepting of their relationship as long as she continued to love him. But, she did not want to break up her family, so she and the organist remained platonic. But in the 1980s, their relationship was strained and at this point, many nurses and medical helpers were around all the time, overwhelming her. His celebrity status was also challenging for her, and her strong Christian faith was a point of contention given his views on religion.
In 1985, when Hawking required 24/7 care, he developed feelings for his nurse named Elaine Mason, to the dismay of his colleagues, caregivers and family, but in 1990, he told Jane he was leaving her for Mason and they married after their divorce was final.
In 1999, Jane wrote a memoir about their relationship and falling out, but as Hawking did not often discuss personal matters, he did not make a comment. His second marriage caused his family worry, as they had been pushed out of his life. Family and staff thought he was being abused, but the case went nowhere when he refused to make a complaint.
In 2006, he and Mason divorced, and he rekindled a closer relationship with Jane and his children and grandchildren. Jane wrote another book in 2007 about her life with Stephen, which became the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.
HIS INCREDIBLE WORK AND LEGACY
Stephen Hawking was extremely smart and made countless contributions in his field.
To name a few, he was the runner up in a 1968 Gravity Research Foundation, published a proof about the theory of relativity, and accepted a Fellowship for Distinction in Science.
He was behind the 2nd law of black hole dynamics, helped to support the no-hair theorem about black holes, and his 1971 essay titled Black Holes won the Gravity Research Foundation award that he had won runner up in 3 years before.
He studied quantum gravity and mechanics, and showed that black holes emit radiation, known as Hawking radiation. Initially controversial, it eventually became a scientific breakthrough. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, one of the youngest ever.
He was regularly interviewed for print and TV and was receiving increasing recognition for his work, being awarded countless awards and medals, including the Albert Einstein Medal in 1978.
He was elected a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1979.
He co-edited a book about Euclidean quantum gravity and maintained his celebrity profile while trying to bring science to a wider audience. His book A Brief History of Time was turned into a movie. He wrote essays and even got a 6-part TV series.
Until his death, he continued his writings and continued developing new theories, like top-down cosmology. He continued to travel the world for his work. In 2003, physicists believed that one of his black hole theories was wrong, and in 2014, he called this his "biggest blunder".
He also argued with Peter Higgs that the Higgs boson would never be found in a heated public debate, and he was criticized for believing his celebrity status gave him credibility. The particle was found in 2012, and Hawking admitted he was wrong and said that Higgs should win a Nobel Prize for Physics, which he did in 2013.
He and his daughter Lucy published a children's book about theoretical physics in 2007, and sequels have been published in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2016.
He was considered 25 of the 100 Greatest Britons and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US, and the Russian Special Fundamental Physics Prize, among many others.
Buildings have been named after him. He supervised 39 successful PhD students. He helped launch an initiative to search for extraterrestrial life and was interested in space travel. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Imperial College London.
This is all just a glimpse of the strides he made in the scientific community, and the countless accolades he received for them.
DISABILITY & DEATH
During his final year at Oxford, he had become clumsier, fell down stairs and had difficulties on the rowing team. His speech began to slur and his family noticed the changes. This diagnosis came when he was 21, and he was given 2 years to live.
His physical abilities declined in the late 60s when he couldn't walk and couldn't give lectures. He lost the ability to write, but was able to develop visual methods to continue his work. He was independent and refused help. He wanted to be seen as a scientist first, a popular science writer second, and lastly, just a normal person with the same dreams as everyone else.
His speech deteriorated and by the late 70s, only close friend and family could understand him. He had an argument with the university over who would pay for his wheelchair ramp to get into his classroom, which spurred his activism in support of those with disabilities, but there was always a divide between his wanting to help others, and detaching himself from his own disability.
In 1986, he was able to speak without the interpretation of his family and close friends by pressing buttons on a handheld computer device attached to his wheelchair. It was how he communicated for the rest of his life.
When he lost the use of his hands in 2005, he began using his device with a movement from his cheek muscle, only able to muster about 1 word per minute. He worked with Intel to develop something else that may work.
Hawking ultimately died in his home in Cambridge on March 14, 2018 at the age of 76, peacefully. Figures in science, entertainment, and politics eulogized him. Flags were flown at half mast. Interestingly, he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death and died on the 139th anniversary of Einstein's birth.
He was commemorated widely through events, books, movies, auctions and even on currency.
Though Stephen Hawking is too smart for me to fully understand exactly what he did, his successes went beyond his scientific achievements. He brought science to the forefront of the world's culture, making physics and black holes and cosmology successful for the non-scientific community. He made science understandable for children. And as if all of the awards and successes weren't enough, he did them all with a disability that was supposed to take his life a mere 2 years of diagnosis.
Stephen Hawking was brash and bold and smart and flawed and showed himself and the world that a disability doesn't have to mean anything. Today, he has been gone for 2 years, but I have a feeling his life and death will be commemorated even after 200.