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Stephen Hawking | Biography


Early Life

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, which also happened to be exactly 300 years after the death of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). He was the first of four children born to Frank and Isobel Hawking, both of whom attended Oxford University. Whereas Isobel pursued a generalist degree more in keeping with an American liberal arts education in economics, politics, and philosophy, Frank specialized in tropical disease research. The year Hawking was born was a difficult time for the young, financially struggling parents living in North London in the middle of World War II (1939–45). Because London suffered regular air raids during the war, Hawking's mother stayed in Oxford, which was not being bombed, for the birth of their first son.

Hawking's two sisters were born in 1943 (Mary) and 1946 or '47 (Philippa), and his adopted brother (Edward) joined the family in 1955 or '56. Together they enjoyed a life rich in scientific exploration and creative curiosity. Frank Hawking intended his oldest son to go into medicine, but Stephen felt himself drawn to the stars. As a youngster, Hawking was more interested in inventing board games and constructing a basic computer to solve mathematical equations with his friends than in schoolwork. By age 17 he entered Oxford, where he found a substantial range of studies in the physics of cosmology; he graduated in 1962 with honors. He continued his studies in cosmology at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

ALS, Disability, and Family Life

At age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, after the American baseball player who suffered from the disease. ALS is a condition in which the nerves that control muscles progressively fail. The prognosis was dismal, and doctors estimated Hawking had no more than just over two years to live at best. Nevertheless, Hawking redoubled his focus on his studies to earn his PhD.

Despite his physical affliction, Hawking made the best of it. He married Jane Wilde in 1965, and together they had three children, Robert, Lucy, and Timothy. Within a few years, the symptoms of ALS had become more pronounced, and Hawking began to use a wheelchair in 1969.

In 1985 Hawking permanently lost his voice, making his work agonizingly slow until computer processing engineers at Intel Corporation came up with the Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit (ACAT) to help Hawking speak, surf the Internet, email, and generally get on with his busy life.

In 1990 Stephen and Jane Hawking divorced, having become estranged over the years. The difficulties of their marriage were spelled out in two memoirs by Jane Hawking, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999) and a revised version of the first with new material, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007). The second memoir was the basis for the feature film The Theory of Everything (2014), for which actor Eddie Redmayne received the 2015 Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal as Hawking. Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, in 1995. They divorced in 2006.

Professional Accomplishments

Hawking became respected in the global scientific community by demonstrating that matter (in the form of radiation) escapes from the gravitational pull of collapsed stars, or black holes. This was a remarkable and startling discovery because black holes were believed to have such strong gravitational fields that nothing—not even energy in the form of light—could escape them. Hawking joined forces with fellow cosmologist Roger Penrose, who had also been working on the fates of stars and the origins of the universe, to develop and present subsequent theories.

By 1968 Hawking held membership at the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. He continued to excel in his career as his condition degenerated. At age 32 Hawking was awarded a fellowship to a prestigious science academy (the Royal Society), and he was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award for Science a few years later in 1978. In 1979 Hawking was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a post created in 1663 that had been held by such scientific luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton (the "Father of Modern Physics") and Charles Babbage, who invented the first successful automatic calculator, the Difference Engine No. 1. Hawking held this prestigious position for 30 years. Other top honors Hawking received include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012. He taught and lectured around the world and served as a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Publishing Success

In all, Hawking has authored and coauthored more than 200 books, including five scientifically themed books for children coauthored with his daughter Lucy. His first technical book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973), was coauthored with South African professor of complex systems G.F.R. Ellis. But to the general public, A Brief History of Time (1988) is arguably Hawking's most well-known book. He intended to engage people other than physicists in the search for a unified theory that brings together all that is observed about existence, so that human beings can understand not only the what of the universe but also the why.

The book was an instant success and sold millions of copies. It hit the best-seller list of the London Sunday Times and stayed there for four years. It also made it to number one on the New York Times best-seller list and has been translated into more than 40 languages. An updated version, with an introduction written by Hawking himself as well as clarifications and additions of the most current developments in physics, was published in 1996.

However, the complexities of physics for nonphysicists still rendered the book a difficult read. With that in mind, Hawking followed up with The Universe in a Nutshell in 2001, in which illustrations provide some conceptual bridges between ideas. A publication in 2005 titled A Briefer History of Time, coauthored with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, simplified the complexities of his previous books and added updated information.

Hawking's most provocative book, The Grand Design (2010), coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow, challenges the idea that God created the universe, because the law of gravity causes the universe to create itself from nothing. This not only goes against his statements in previous books that modern scientific theories could be compatible with a divine creator but further stirs controversy between science and theology.

Cultural Impact

Hawking's developments in physics have captured the attention of popular culture, and he has made notable appearances on TV series episodes of The Simpsons and Star Trek. He also appeared in the comedic series The Big Bang Theory, and hosted and narrated the May 2016 television series Genius. Hawking characterized Genius as "a fun show that tries to find out if ordinary people are smart enough to think like the greatest minds who ever lived. Being an optimist, I think they will." Filmmaker Errol Morris made a 1991 documentary of Hawking's life, titled A Brief History of Time.

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