As the rest of the world awakens to the death of Stephen Hawking, the world of STEM in particular is left reeling from the giant meteorite that just blasted into our hearts.
Born in England on January 8, 1942 during the midst of World War II, Hawking seemed to be surviving against the odds already. His parents were both graduates of the prestigious Oxford and Hawking grew up in a very intelligent, if not a bit eccentric, family. Education was a top priority for his parents and so they sent him to St. Albans, a well-distinguished school where Hawking could be found taking apart a clock or telephone to build a computer. He was initially not academically successful in grade school, although deemed “Einstein” by his fellow students. With time, a better understanding of math and science grew in him, with the help of an inspiring teacher. Hawking attended Oxford after his secondary school years, studying physics and chemistry, despite being urged by his father to study medicine.
In 1963, just before his 21st birthday, while he was a doctoral student of cosmetology at University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
"It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven't done badly. People won't have time for you if you are always angry or complaining,” Dr. Hawking once said.
This motor neuron disease affected his use of all voluntary movements, causing his muscles to weaken. Eventually, Hawking’s symptoms worsened to include slurred speech. Severe depression began to take over his life. His professors recommended him to quit his studies and he was given two years to live.
Yet, here we are, 55 years later: Stephen Hawking obtained his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, won the prestigious Adams Prize for his essay on singularities, started a family with Jane Wilde and went on to write several award-winning books, including A Brief History of Time. Hawking used a speech synthesizer that allowed him to speak in a computerized voice with an American accent. In 1979, he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the most famous academic chair in the world.
No other person has left such an impact on history. From determining that black holes are not totally silent but instead emit radiation to predicting that, following the Big Bang, black holes as tiny as protons were created, Hawking made significant, even controversial, strides in the realms of general relativity and quantum mechanics.
“You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Dr. Hawking said in an interview in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “if we send someone off to jump into a black hole, neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.”
Stephen Hawking, however, will be best known for translating the secrets of the universe into a more understandable language for the common people. Explaining ideas such as the nature of gravity and origin of the universe in a way that accessible to everyone, Hawking became an inspiration and opened up opportunities for kids to test all limits.
In his book A Brief History of Time, Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.”
He is a champion of fighting against all adversities. Hawking has traveled to every continent, including Antarctica. He celebrated his 60th birthday by going up in a hot-air balloon. A few months after his 65th birthday, he took part in a zero-gravity flight. The disability that once threatened to take his life was now turned into a strength.
Dr. Hawking states, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.”
We have lost a great man who contained within him an insurmountable amount of knowledge. I fell in love with science because I am in pursuit of such knowledge. It is the thirst to have a grasp on such ideas and uncover information not previously known that continues to drive the world of STEM forward.
Science’s greatest champion has passed and we now seek someone to fill his void. Perhaps it will be a child inspired by Dr. Hawking’s works who continues to unravel the universe and discover its secrets.