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Stephen Hawking (1942 – present)

Theoretical Physicist

Born on the 8th of January 1942, Stephen Hawking is the eldest of four children – 2 younger sisters, and an adopted brother. He was born in Oxford England and his parents were Frank Hawking a research biologist, and Isobel Hawking.

Hawking was born exactly 300 years after Galileo Galilee died, at the height of World War II, and his parents who were living in London before he was born, moved to Oxford for the safety of their family.

During his early schooling days, Hawking was an average student and was very interested in mathematics, which he wanted to study in university too. His father preferred him to study at his old university, University College Oxford that at that time did not have a math programme.

Hawkins was accepted through a scholarship to study natural sciences with special focus in physics and although he was not very interested in the subject, almost bored, one of his professors said, “... his mind was completely different from all of his contemporaries”.

During his final oral examination, even the examiners realized that Hawking was smarted than most of them. He received his B.A. degree and started working in Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

At 21 years, Hawking was diagnosed with a serious motor neuron disease (Lou Gehrig's disease) that would eventually lead to paralysis. His doctors said that he did not have long to live, even to complete his PhD.

He took a break from his studies for about 2 years, and only managed to return for his PhD after it was under control. He later said, “... although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found to my surprise that I was enjoying life in the present more than I had before. I began to make progress with my research...”

He completed his doctorate when he was about 25 years and was offered various high academic positions in the astronomy, mathematics, and theoretical physics departments of major universities.

Hawking’s interest in cosmology, and the nature of the universe was ever growing. He began working on a theory of general relativity that could explain certain things about the cosmos through mathematical equations.

He worked together with another scientist, Roger Penrose and around 1970 started applying his theories to study the nature of black holes.

At this time, he made an amazing discovery. By applying singularities in his theory of general relativity, and through quantum theory he found out that black holes were releasing radiation until they evaporate. This made his try to combine the theories of general relativity and quantum theory.

Together with two other theoretical physicists, Hawking proposed the laws of black hole mechanics by comparing them to thermodynamics.

Hawking’s preoccupation about how the Universe was created lead him to theorize that after the big bang huge protons, as heavy as 109 would be created. These tiny black holes had massive gravitational pulls and operated on the theory of general relativity. Smaller objects operated according to quantum mechanics.

At the age of 32, he became the youngest member to be appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, a very distinguished honour. At the same time, his illness had become so serious that he could not feed himself or get out of bed on his own.

On the other hand, Hawking’s determination never lessened and by this time, his work had begun to be recognized by the public and he even appeared in television documentaries.

At the age of 37 years, he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the same position that Newton once held many years before. He held this position for 30 years (until he retired in 2009).

In the 1980’s Hawking stated that the Universe as we know it had no boundaries; that even though space and time were limited the laws of science could explain the beginning of the universe.

Armed with this new knowledge, Hawking started working on his first book, A Brief History of Time when he was about 40 years old. Unfortunately, at this time, his illness took a turn for the worst.

His speech had become so difficult to understand except by those who were close to him and he lost his voice completely following an operation to prevent complications after contracting pneumonia. From then on, Hawking communicates through a speech-generating device that speaks everything he types.

Through all this in 1988 at the age of 46 he published A Brief History of Time and broke all records even entering the Guinness Book of Records after being on The Sunday Times best seller list for 237 weeks!

In 2002, Hawking put together a collection of Copernicus’, Galileo’s, Kepler’s, Newton’s and Einstein’s work, in the book titled On the shoulders of giants – The great works of physics and astronomy.

He published a similar book in 2007 taking the works and biographies of 21 great mathematicians. The book is called God created the integers – The mathematical breakthroughs that changed history.

Even though Hawking’s books are very scientific, he has written his work in a way that many different people can easily read and understand what he has said. He even co- wrote George’s Secret Key to the Universe a children’s scientific book with his daughter Lucy.

Hawking’s work on the universe has makes him quite sure that alien life exists. He does not believe they look anything like in the movies, and feels we need to figure out how they might actually look and behave because sometimes they can threaten Earth.

In 2007, at the age of 65, Hawking took a zero gravity space flight, and became the first quadriplegic to float in zero gravity.

During his life thus far, Hawking has won 14 prestigious medals including the honorary Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honour in America for any civilian, which he received from President Barrak Obama.

Besides his books on science, he has also published books on his religious and philosophical views and their connection to science.

Hawkins married his first wife roughly around the time that he started university and was first diagnosed with his illness. They had three children before they divorced. He later married his personal care assistant, and they too divorced a few years later.

Hawking’s daughter Lucy Hawking is a famous writer and journalist herself.

There are many television series, movies and documentaries based on Hawking’s work.