Stephen William Hawking is a scientist, researcher and innovator perhaps best known for his theories regarding black holes. He has a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although he can’t communicate by writing or speaking in the traditional sense, he is still influencing the world with his theories about the laws of the universe.
Born in 1942, Hawking was the son of two intellectual parents who worked hard to gain a proper education despite having few financial resources. The family was considered to be more eccentric than the general population. Their house was always messy, they drove an updated London taxicab and they spent most of their time reading.
Stephen Hawking studied at Oxford, which was his father’s alma mater. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Hawking had no interest in biology. He was more interested in mathematics than in becoming a doctor. Because there was no mathematics program at his school, he earned a degree in natural sciences instead.
During his first few years at Oxford, Stephen Hawking was lonely. He spent time with the other students in his department, with whom he felt he could connect because of their intelligence and similar interests, and he often kept his nose in a book.
Eventually, he became popular for his likable and comical personality. His small stature made him the perfect coxswain for the rowing team. While in the Boat Club, Stephen Hawking built camaraderie with his teammates even though he couldn’t connect with them from an intellectual standpoint. Being on the rowing team took away from his focus on his studies, but he never had to work that hard anyway. He was so brilliant that he often completed difficult schoolwork much faster than the other students, leaving him with a lot of extra time.
Toward the end of his years at Oxford, Hawking started to become clumsier. He experienced unexplained falls and slurred speech. He spent two weeks in the hospital undergoing a variety of tests. Although Hawking was eventually diagnosed with ALS, the doctors didn’t explain his diagnosis at first; they simply said that he had a rare disease and gave him approximately two years to live.
Stephen Hawking had just begun his groundbreaking research in general relativity and cosmology, but he didn’t know whether he would live long enough to continue. That thought didn’t stop him, however. If anything, it inspired him to do even more. Before his diagnosis, Hawking had felt somewhat apathetic about life. He was brilliant and bored, and he had all the time in the world to make great strides. After he learned that he wasn’t expected to live much longer, he began having dreams that he would change the world.
At the same time, he was developing a relationship with Jane Wilde, who he credits with inspiring him to keep on living a full and meaningful life. Stephen Hawking began working as a fellow at Caius College and married Wilde shortly thereafter.
As he continued to conduct his research in theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking’s physical condition deteriorated. The disease caused him to lose control of his muscles. He lost the ability to write and feed himself and got around using an electric wheelchair. He dictated his scientific papers, although it was often difficult to understand what he said. In 1985, Stephen Hawking came down with pneumonia and underwent a tracheotomy operation, losing his ability to speak altogether.
He never lost his ability to think, however. In 1975, Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes are not completely black, because they radiate energy. In 1983, Hawking helped develop the concept that the universe has no boundaries. He explains that the universe is four-dimensional and finite in space-time and that it will eventually collapse.
Hawking continued to communicate using a device that allowed him to press a button to choose letters and words to form sentences. As he lost complete control of the muscles in his hand, Hawking began to use his cheek muscles to select the letters and phrases, a method that he continues to use to communicate.
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde had three children together and were married for 30 years. During that time, Wilde cared for him, loved him and devoted herself to him and the family. Hawking needed additional help, however. The family employed a number of nurses and assistants to give Hawking the care he needed. After he divorced Wilde, he married one of his nurses, but they divorced 11 years later.
Hawking continued to maintain a relationship with Wilde and their children, and he also continued his work in physics. He has written several books and essays and delivered a number of lectures. A Brief History of Time explains his theories of black holes and the creation of the universe in layman’s terms. He also wrote The Universe in a Nutshell.
He has earned several awards and recognitions. In 1975, Hawking was awarded the Pius XI Gold Medal for Science by the pope. He served as the Lucasian professor of mathematics, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, at England’s University of Cambridge for 30 years. In 2009, President Obama awarded Hawking the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Stephen Hawking has not yet won the Nobel Prize, however, and that fact has served as the punchline at many a lecture. His theory about the possibility of black holes exploding is commonly accepted in theoretical physics, but it’s impossible to prove. There is no way to confirm that black holes will evaporate over time, because that time frame is billions of years.
In a 2012 interview, Stephen Hawking said, “Despite my disability, I have managed to do most things I want.” Throughout his life, Hawking has made an effort to remain known for his work and not for his disability, and he is an inspiration. He may have lost the ability to move and to communicate verbally, but he has not lost his motivation to use his gifts to change the world.