A Brief History of Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Stephen Hawking

The world has lost its greatest mind, but the legacy of Hawking continues on throughout the scientific community.

Lwp Kommunikáció/Astronomy Magazine

Stephen Hawking died recently, after being told decades ago that he would only live another two years. In his over fifty years years of scientific study and research, Hawking made discoveries thought impossible by previous scientists and jumpstarted even more careers in the field by engaging the public via literature, open panels, and even cameo appearances in television and film. Without a doubt the most intelligent man to have ever lived, Stephen Hawking leaves behind decades of exploration and investigation into the mysteries of the universe. As with any person in his line of work, his life is best seen through his studies – and if you get the chance, read his books or even his doctorate thesis (which is available free online). But let's take a look at his early days, and what kind of legacy the acclaimed scientist has left behind.

Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, three hundred years to the day after the death of early astronomer Galileo Galilei. From a young age he showed his intellect, though he did not do well at school until he discovered science classes. At age 17, he began studying at the University of Oxford, where he joined the school rowing team and met his first wife, Jane. However, as time went on, he began having difficulties rowing and moving, and went to a doctor. There he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, and because of the times and ability of medical technology at the time, was given a life expectancy of two years. This was in 1963, and his final year at Oxford. Despite the two-year warning, his disease progressed much slower, and Hawking was able to attend Cambridge to earn a doctorate degree after his professor helped him with a depression. His speech was becoming diffucult, his walking required crutches, but that did not stop him from doing research into black holes and the possibility of a “space-time wormhole” within them. After writing his thesis on this very subject, Hawking was given a doctorate degree in 1966, aged 24. It was as if his illness was just a minor bump in the road. After receiving his degree, Hawking continued his study, even trying to disprove his own theory to uncover more information – such as how black holes generate a type of radiation (now dubbed “Hawking radiation”). The public began getting interested in black holes and the mysteries of what lies in space, and Hawking knew how to explain these concepts without talking down to them, thus making him a household name by the mid 1970s.

He never lost his wit or humor, and eventually had to be confined to a wheelchair (against his own desires, but there really ways no choice), and relied on close friends and family to interpret his speech to interviewers and colleagues, his disease slowly taking more and more of his energy. His work was being taught worldwide, as if he was an ancient mind like Newton or Copernicus. In 1985, he came down with pneumonia, which made breathing even more difficult – and the only way doctors could save him would be to perform a tracheotomy, but it would render him unable to speak and require 24-hour nurse care. One of those nurses would become his second wife after his divorce from Jane. Hawking did not care for the “communication board” he was given to use, and within a year was given a new text-to-speech system, thus giving him his iconic computer voice. Originally he was able to type by hand, but by 2005 had to use a system connected to his cheek in order to create text – and interviews had to use pre-submitted questions for him to program into the computer beforehand. His famous book, A Brief History of Time, which explained scientific concepts in such a way that the average person could understand was released in 1988, and was an international best seller. Around this time and in the decades that followed, he made several cameo appearances, from Star Trek: The Next Generation to The Simpsons to modern sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, and even appeared on two Pink Floyd albums with music overlayed over his voice.

But Hawking's achievements are not “in spite of his disability.” He was intelligent before he was unable to move or speak. He was researching and theorizing things once thought impossible. It just so happened that his body wasn't physically fit. His discoveries and theories, his writings and his speeches, are forever tied into physics and cosmology. He had a disability, yes, but his story is not impressive just because of that. He was breaking the mold of science and inspiring generations to get involved in scientific studies. Stephen Hawking was in a category that consisted of Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan, scientists that were known by everybody, not just those interested in the subject. Now, because of his ability to explain profound concepts to the average person, there are more and more scientists that are just as well-known, and more people who listen to what they have to say. He didn't personally discuss his disability much, because while it was a major aspect of his life, his scientific work was the more important to him. He was lucky to have lived long past the original diagnosis, but even still – he was working on a doctorate thesis unheard of then, so regardless he would have made an impact on black hole research.

Stephen Hawking was one of my personal heroes. Reading his books opened my mind to concepts and ideas that further extend understanding of the universe we live in. This was a man who would theorize something, then set out to disprove it in an effort to find the truth. A sense of humor that never faded and always made his talks and interviews memorable, to him he was not some big shot celebrity, he was a scientist wanting to find out how and why we are here, and what how the universe began and continues to expand. His legacy is one of scientific achievement, inspiring kids to read into his works and pursue a STEM career – some of whom are lucky enough to have worked with him in their adult lives. Hawking never took an IQ test, saying that “people who boast about their IQ are losers.” He cared more for one's own individual intelligence, not for how smart they were on paper. It is fitting he died on what would have been Albert Einstein's 139th birthday, considering he was born on the three-hundredth anniversary of Galileo's death. Three men who made such important discoveries about what lies beyond our planet, all three with names instantly recognizable to anybody around the world. The world lost a great mind with his passing. We'll never have another mind like his again, but his decades of discovery will continue to be examined and investigated, adapted and used to enhance technology and our view of what's beyond our planet.

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