Stephen Hawking is a phenomenal scientist and scientific phenomenon. He enjoys his unique position as a popular cultural icon as well as one of the most respected scientists of his generation. The man who doctors gave two years to live when he was 21 has just celebrated his 75th birthday.
To coin a phrase from his own scientific theory, Hawking is something of a singularity. From a young age, he clearly had an exceptional scientific and mathematical brain. But at the age of 21, as he started out on his doctorate in cosmology, he was given what was in effect a death sentence. He had started tripping up regularly. When he went to the doctor's, he was told he had Motor Neurone Disease, a degenerative neurological condition, and only had two or three years to live.
No one knows why a prognosis which is true in the vast majority of cases was so wrong in Stephen Hawking's. The dedication and care of his two wives and professional carers have been essential. Hawking lost the use of his limbs in his early years with the condition and after a bout of pneumonia that required a tracheotomy in 1985, lost the ability to speak. He replaced his voice with the synthesised voice that is instantly familiar around the world, whether he is giving a scientific lecture or making a guest appearance on Star Trek. But producing the voice is incredibly laborious – Hawking has to choose letters on a virtual keyboard using one muscle in his cheek and an infrared switch on his glasses. Predictive texting technology has speeded this up somewhat in recent years, but Hawking has refused an upgrade of the actual voice, which has become his signature.
Stephen Hawking says he is lucky that theoretical physics is one of the rare domains in which a physical disability is no impediment. He adds with typical humour that it has in fact spared him from having to attend boring meetings and committees and left him more time to think. Whether he would have produced the same work if he had not had MND will never be known but his scientific career has been prodigious. He was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge at just 35: a post that was created for Isaac Newton. His work on black holes is credited with finally providing scientific proof for the Big Bang theory of the universe.
Hawking is still working and theorising today, as well as participating in space projects. He is the Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge
A Brief History of Time
Hawking has also been a prime mover in popularising science with the general public. His bestselling book A Brief History of Time explains cosmology to lay people and has sold more than 10 million copies. He has written several other popular science books since, along with an autobiography, and now a series of science-themed children's books with his daughter Lucy.
He is convinced that humans must continue space exploration, not least in order to provide an alternative planet for our species if an ecological disaster or war made Earth unlivable. He is on the board of Starshot, a project to launch high-speed microscopic spacecraft to search for other forms of life in the universe.
The Theory of Everything
The 2014 film The Theory of Everything, based on Hawking's first wife Jane's memoir, starred Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. The film won multiple awards for bringing this extraordinary true story to wide public attention.
Stephen Hawking visited the filmmakers on location, and appeared in the final part of the film.
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