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Stephen Hawking - A Journey Through Life

  • Synopsis: Published: 2010-03-23 (Revised/Updated 2017-04-07) - Stephen Hawking was born on the eighth of January in the year 1942 in Oxford England. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Thomas C. Weiss at Disabled World.

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Quote: "I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed."

Upon earning his Ph.D., Stephen Hawking became a Research Fellow, later becoming a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College.

Stephen Hawking was born on the eighth of January in the year 1942 in Oxford, England. Stephen's parents had a house located in northern England, but the second world war was happening and Oxford was considered to be a safer place for a child to be born at the time. By the time he was eight years old, Stephen and his family had moved to St. Albans, a town located approximately twenty miles north of London. Age eleven found him attending Albans School.

Eventually, Stephen went on to attend University College in Oxford, the same college his father had attended. He wanted to study Mathematics, while his father preferred that he pursue medicine, but Mathematics was not something that was available at University College. Instead, Stephen pursued Physics, and after three years and a lack of work, he found himself being awarded a first class honors degree in Natural Science.

Stephen moved on to Cambridge in order to pursue research in the field of Cosmology; there was no one working in the area of study in Oxford at that time. He had hoped to get Fred Hoyle as a supervisor, but received Denis Sciama. Upon earning his Ph.D., Stephen became a Research Fellow, later becoming a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. He left the Institute of Astronomy in the year 1973, and went to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Since the year 1979, Stephen has held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a chair founded in 1663 with monies left in the will of the Reverend Henry Lucas, who had been the Member of Parliament for the University. The post was first held by Isaac Barrow, then by Isaac Newton in the year 1669.

Stephen Hawking in his earlier years
About This Image: Stephen Hawking in his earlier years
Stephen has conducted work concerning the basic laws that govern the universe itself. Along with Roger Penrose, he has shown that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the, 'Big Bang,' and end in black holes. The results of these studies indicated that it was necessary to unify Quantum Theory and General Relativity. On of the consequences of such a unification that Stephen discovered was that, 'black holes,' should not be entirely black, and should instead emit radiation, eventually evaporating and disappearing. Another is that the universe has no boundary in imaginary time, implying that the way the universe started was determined entirely by the laws of science.

Stephen Hawking has twelve honorary degrees, and was awarded the CBE in 1982. He was made a Companion of Honor in the year 1989, and has received a number of medals, awards, and prizes. He is also a Fellow of The Royal Society and a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He continues to combine his family life, his research into theoretical physics, and a program of public lectures and travel.

In regards to the disability Stephen experiences, he has some things to say: "I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.

It was a great shock to me to discover that I had motor neurone disease.

I had never been very well coordinated physically as a child. I was not good at ball games, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. Maybe for this reason, I didn't care much for sport or physical activities. But things seemed to change when I went to Oxford, at the age of 17. I took up coxing and rowing. I was not Boat Race standard, but I got by at the level of inter-College competition."

In his third year at Oxford, Stephen noticed that he was getting more, "clumsy." Says Stephen, "I fell over once or twice for no apparent reason. But it was not until I was at Cambridge, in the following year, that my father noticed, and took me to the family doctor. He referred me to a specialist, and shortly after my 21st birthday, I went into hospital for tests. I was in for two weeks, during which I had a wide variety of tests. They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with x-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn't tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an a-typical case. I gathered, however, that they expected it to continue to get worse, and that there was nothing they could do, except give me vitamins. I could see that they didn't expect them to have much effect. I didn't feel like asking for more details, because they were obviously bad."

When Stephen realized that he had a form of disease that was incurable, that the disease was likely to kill him in a few years, he experienced a bit of shock. He questioned how something like this could happen to him, wondering why he should be cut off in life in such a manner. While he was in the hospital he saw a boy he vaguely knew die of leukemia in a bed opposite of him, something he says was, "not a pretty sight." He understood then that there were people who were clearly worse off than himself; at least his condition did not make him feel sick. Whenever he felt inclined to feel sorry for himself, he remembered that boy.

Stephen did not know what was going to happen to him because of his disability; how it would progress was uncertain, and he felt, "at a loose end." Doctors told him to go back to Cambridge and continue with his research, he has just begun research concerning general relativity and cosmology. He wasn't making much progress because he didn't have much mathematical background. Stephen wasn't even sure if he would live long enough to finish his Ph.D., and felt like somewhat of a tragic character. He started listening to Wagner, although reports stating that he drank heavily are exaggerated. Stephen says, "The trouble is once one article said it, other articles copied it, because it made a good story. People believe that anything that has appeared in print so many times must be true."

His dreams during this time were disturbed.

Before he was diagnosed with ALS, he had been bored with life, there didn't seem to anything worth doing. Shortly after coming out of the hospital though, he dreamed that he was going to be executed, and realized that there were many worthwhile things he could do if he were reprieved. In another dream; one that occurred a number of times, Stephen dreamed that he would sacrifice his own life to save other people. Concerning this recurring dream he says, "After all, if I were going to die anyway, it might as well do some good. But I didn't die. In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before.

I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed. That engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for. But it also meant that I had to get a job if we were to get married. I therefore applied for a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) college, Cambridge. To my great surprise, I got a fellowship, and we got married a few months later."

A fellowship at Caius took care of Stephen's immediate employment problem, and he was fortunate to have chosen work in theoretical physics because it was one of the few areas in which his disability would not present a serious handicap. He was also fortunate in that his scientific reputation increased at the same time that his disability worsened, meaning that people were prepared to offer him a sequence of positions where he only had to do research without having to lecture.

Stephen and his new wife Jane were also fortunate where housing was concerned. When they were married, Jane was pursuing an undergraduate degree at Westfield College in London, making the trip there during the week. What this meant was they had to find a place that Stephen could manage on his own that was central because at the time, he could not walk very far. Stephen asked the College if they could assist him, but was told by the Bursar that it was College policy not to help Fellows with housing. They put their name down to rent one of a group of new flats that were being built in the market place, unaware that the flats were actually owned by the College. When they returned to Cambridge from a visit to America after they were married, they found that the flats weren't ready yet. As a concession, the Bursar said they could have a room in a hostel for graduate students. The Bursar said, "We normally charge 12 shillings and 6 pence a night for this room. However, as there will be two of you in the room, we will charge 25 shillings."

The newlyweds stayed for only three nights in the hostel. They found a small house approximately one-hundred yards from Stephen's university department that belonged to another College, where they remained for three months. During that time, they found another house on the same road that was empty. One of their neighbors spoke with the owner of the house and told her that it was, 'a scandal that her house should be empty, when young people were looking for accommodation.' The owner let the house to the Hawkings, and they lived there for a few years.

Eventually, Stephen and Jane decided they wanted to buy the house, so they asked Stephen's College for a mortgage. The College; however, did a survey; they decided that it would not be a good risk. In the end the couple received a mortgage from a building society, with Stephen's parents providing the money, 'to do it up.' Stephen and Jane remained in the house for another four years until it became too difficult for Stephen to manage the stairs. By that time, the College had found a greater level of appreciation for Stephen and his abilities; there was a different Bursar as well. Stephen was offered a ground floor flat in a house the College owned, which suited the couple very well because it had large rooms and wide doors. The flat was central, meaning that Stephen could get to his University department or the College in his electric wheel chair. The flat had a garden that was cared for by the College gardeners and was nice for Stephen and Jane's three children as well.

Through the year 1974, Stephen was able to get in and out of bed, as well as feed himself. Jane managed to assist him and raise their children without outside help. As things became more difficult, they began having one of Stephen's research students live with them. The student received free accommodation in exchange for assistance that included helping Stephen get up in the morning and into bed at night. By 1980, the family reached out for assistance from a system of community and private nurses; they came in for an hour or so in the morning and evening. The arrangement with the community and private nurses lasted until Stephen caught pneumonia in 1985 and had to have a tracheotomy operation. After the operation he required nursing care on a twenty-four hour basis, something made possible through grants from a number of foundations.

Prior to the operation Stephen's speech was becoming more slurred; only those who knew him well could understand him, but he did have the ability to communicate. He wrote scientific papers through dictation to a secretary, presenting seminars through an interpreter who repeated his words with greater clarity. The tracheotomy operation removed his ability to speak entirely, and for a period of time the only way he was able to communicate was to spell out words through individual letters, or by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. Basic conversation became exceptionally difficult through this means, let alone attempts to write scientific papers.

A computer expert in the state of California named Walt Woltosz heard about the difficulties Stephen was experiencing related to communication and sent Stephen a computer program he wrote called, 'Equalizer.' The program allowed Stephen to select words from a series of menus on the screen by pressing a switch in his hand. The program could also be controlled by a switch that is operated by either head or eye movement. Once Stephen has selected the words he desires to say, he can send them to a speech synthesizer. When he first ran the Equalizer program, he did so from a desktop computer.

David Mason, of Cambridge Adaptive Communication, fitted a small, portable computer and a speech synthesizer to Stephen's wheelchair. The system allowed him to communicate with greater ability than he could previously. Now Stephen can manage up to fifteen words a minute, and has the ability to either speak what he has written, or save it to a disk. He can print out the words he has selected, 'call it back,'' and speak it sentence by sentence. Using this system, Stephen has written a book and dozens of scientific papers. He has also given a number of scientific and popular talks, all of which have been well received. In regards to this system Stephen says: "The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent."

Stephen has had motor neurone disease for most of his adult life, but it has not prevented him from having a very attractive family and a successful job. He attributes his success to the assistance he has received from his wife, Jane; as well as from his children, and large numbers of people and organizations. "I have been lucky, that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope," says Stephen in regards to his disability.

Among Stephens various publications are:

The Large Scale Structure of Space-time with G F R Ellis
General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey, with W Israel
300 Years of Gravity, with W Israel
A Brief History of Time
Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays.

Stephen is planning to leave Cambridge University after nearly fifty years and move to Canada in protest over the cuts the government has made. His status as perhaps the most famous physicist in the world today has been marred by falling university budgets; something he believes are inhibiting scientific discoveries. Stephen's departure would certainly be a blow to both Cambridge and British scholarship. He spent two months at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario and if everything goes as planned, hopes to move there permanently. The British government, in an attempt to reduce the deficit, has cut higher education to the tune of approximately one-billion pounds over a three year period.



Related Information:

  1. Prof. Stephen Hawking to be Officially Welcomed to Canada
  2. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Discussion with Stephen Hawking - Renowned physicist discussed the progress the science team is making to cure Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - Bioscience Americas, LLC
  3. New Intel System Provides Professor Stephen Hawking Better Communication - The Intel-created advanced communications platform can be adapted for 3 million people afflicted with motor neuron diseases and quadriplegia - Intel


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