The Genius That Was Stephen Hawking
On March 14th, 1879 one of the greatest theoretical physicist of all time was born, his name was Albert Einstein and in an incredible coincidence…. exactly one hundred and thirty nine years to the day later another of the worlds greatest theoretical physicist died; his name was Professor Stephen Hawking.
Hawking was not only a brilliant mind he was also a representation of mind over matter, whose genius brain was trapped within his failing body. A man who found a way to overcome his debilitating illness and defy his prognosis for 55 years.
So here we look at some incredible facts about Stephen Hawking that defined his life and helped him to continue his brilliant work in spite of his disability.
Surprisingly for such an intelligent man, Hawking’s schooling got off to a bad start, his first school was Byron House in Highgate London, which he left still being unable to read.
Next was St Albans High School for girls! A school where younger male pupils were allowed to attend, he stayed here for a few months before moving to Radlett School in Hertfordshire for a year. And then from the age of 11, he moved to St Albans School also in Hertfordshire.
But his family, in particular, his father wanted him to attend the well regarded Westminster School, but they couldn’t afford the fees so had to rely on a scholarship. However, on the day of the scholarship exam, Hawking was ill, so had to remain at St Alban’s. Here he had a close group of friends and became known as Einstein. At the school, he was particularly influenced by his maths teacher Dikran Tahta, and together they built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components. By this time Hawking was showing a considerable aptitude for scientific subjects.
Heavily influenced by his father who wanted him to study at University College Oxford, he decided to study physics and chemistry and in 1959 at the age of just 17, he was awarded a scholarship and began his University education at Oxford.
But for the first year and a half he was lonely and bored, he found the academic work “ridiculously easy” and his physics tutor, Robert Berman, later said, “It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it.”
However, during his second and third year, he joined the college boat club and started to join in more with the other students, but as a result his studies suffered, and when it came to sitting his finals he had not studied hard enough……so he decided to answer only theoretical physics questions rather than those requiring factual knowledge! He was desperate to gain a first-class honours degree as this was a condition for his planned graduate study in cosmology at the University of Cambridge.
The final result was borderline meaning a further oral exam was necessary. When asked during the exam to describe his plans; he reportedly answered:
“If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.”
It worked, and he received his first class BA (Hons) degree in natural science, and in October 1962 he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
Belief In Aliens
For many years people were keen to know Hawking’s thoughts on the possibility of alien life, and when he was invited to talk at NASA’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 2008, he briefly gave his opinions on the subject, and much to the delight of the audience he did not totally dismiss the possibility.
He explained that given the vastness of the Universe, it was quite likely that alien life was out there and it was possible there was other intelligent life as well.
This was one of his quotes from that talk:
“Primitive life is very common, and intelligent life is very rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth!”
He also expressed concern about the potential risk to humans if they were to encounter an alien because they would probably not be DNA based and so humans would have no resistance to any potential diseases they may carry.
Hawking also did an episode on the possibility of alien life for “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” on the Discovery Channel.
In the episode, he explains that aliens might use up their own planet’s resources and “become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they could reach. Or, they could set up a mirror system to focus all the energy of the sun in one area, creating a wormhole……a hole to travel through spacetime”
He also had words of caution when saying:
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
But if Stephen Hawking’s believes in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, I think we all should!
Towards the end of his time at Oxford Hawking started to notice early signs of his disease. He was getting increasingly clumsy and fell over several times for no particular reason.
After seeking medical help, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) a form of Motor Neurone Disease; he was just 21 years old……At the time his prognosis was poor, and he was only expected to live another 2-3 years.
ALS is a rare neurological disease that mainly involves the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. It’s a progressive disease for which there is no cure and no effective treatment to relieve symptoms or slow the progression.
Within just a few years Hawkings had to use a wheelchair and could no longer write, and by the 1970’s he was losing his speech….But remarkably he was still alive, and his genius brain was completely unaffected.
In 1985 he had a tracheotomy after a bout of pneumonia, this meant he lost the ability to speak, and from this point, he spoke through a computer system, which he controlled with his cheek. The disease had left him paralysed and only able to move a few fingers on one hand and utterly dependent on technology and others for all his needs.
Despite this he continued his research into theoretical physics and travelled extensively giving public lectures and went on to become one of the most recognised people on the planet; living decades longer than medical experts had predicted, in fact over 50 years longer than his initial prognosis.
In doing so he gave hope to other ALS sufferers, but he also baffled many medical experts who could only speculate on why he survived for so long.
It has been suggested that because he developed the disease at such a young age, it had almost burnt itself out…..although typically even when developed at a young age; ten years is the maximum survival time. And to date Professor Steven Hawking is the longest surviving MND sufferer ever.
He Fulfilled His Dream Of Experiencing Zero Gravity
On August 26th, 2007, Stephen Hawking achieved his lifelong dream of experiencing zero gravity. At the age of 65, he was able to float out of his wheelchair and experience weightlessness in flight. In doing so the public saw Hawking free from his wheelchair for the first time in 40 years; he was even able to perform a couple of flips.
But the path to achieving this remarkable feat was not easy, and it was down to the persistence of an entrepreneur named Peter Diamandis that made it possible.
Hawking had asked Diamandis :”Can you get me into space?” he replied “I can’t do that right now, but I can give you a chance to fly on zero-G.”
Zero-G, which was owned by Diamandis gives people a chance to take a flight within the Earth’s atmosphere that allows them to experience several minutes of simulated weightlessness.
The plan was announced to the press, and that is when alarm bells started ringing not least from Zero-G’s aircraft partner at the time who reportedly said “You’re crazy!….. You’re going to put the world’s most famous physicist into zero-G? You’re going to kill the guy!’ Also opposed to the idea was the Federal Aviation Administration who basically said “you can’t do it!”
But Diamandis persisted and got the FAA to agree that if doctors agreed Hawking was fit enough then they would allow it. Hawking himself wanted to proceed and was willing to take the risk.
So on August 26th, 2007, Hawking along with an entourage of carers took off from the space shuttle’s runway at Kennedy Space Center. Two hours later they returned, and Hawking had experienced a total of four minutes of weightlessness. He said afterwards
“It was amazing, Space, here I come.”
This was in reference to the seat he had booked on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to ride on a sub-orbital flight. But sadly this dream can no longer be fulfilled.
The photo’s released to the press revealed Hawkings smiling as wide as his facial movement allowed.
Shortly before his ALS diagnosis, he started a relationship with Jane Wilde, a friend of his sister. The couple became engaged in October 1964, and Hawking later said that the engagement gave him ‘something to live for’ the pair married on 14 July 1965.
The couple had three children a son, Robert; born in May 1967, a daughter, Lucy; born in 1970 and Timothy, who was born in April 1979.
But Hawking’s disabilities meant Jane took sole responsibility for the home and family, and the strain was starting to show when in December 1977, Jane met Jonathan Hellyer Jones who was an organist at the church choir she sang in. The pair developed romantic feelings for each other, something that Hawking accepted as long as she continued to love him.
However, by the 1980s, the marriage was in trouble, and Hawking had grown close to Elaine Mason, one of the nurses who cared for him and in February 1990 he left Jane and the family home, and after divorcing her in 1995, he married Mason.
A few years later Jane published a memoir called ‘Music to Move the Stars,’ describing her marriage to Hawking and its breakdown. But as was customary throughout his life Hawking did not comment on the book or his personal life.
But all was not well in his second marriage, and his children and other members of the family felt excluded from his life, there were also concerns that Hawking was being physically abused by his new wife and although a police investigation took place, Hawking refused to press charges.
By 2006 the couple divorced, and Hawking reconnected with Jane, his children and his grandchildren. This was when Jane wrote a revised version of her memoirs called Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This book was the basis for the 2014 film ‘The Theory Of Everything’
Other Fascinating Facts:
- Stephen Hawking’s birthday…..January 8, 1942, was the 300th anniversary of the death of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.
- Stephen guest-starred, as himself, on “The Big Bang Theory,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons.”
- His speech synthesiser had an American accent despite him being British.
- He was rumored to run over the toes of people he didn’t like with his wheelchair.
- Hawking was known for his wicked sense of humour and had said that it “is what keeps me going.”
- He was the 17th Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, an academic chair at Cambridge University. From 1669 to 1702, the position was held by Sir Isaac Newton. It has been confirmed that Hawking’s ashes will be interred next to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.
Some Memorable Hawking Quotes:
“People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
“Women. They are a complete mystery.”
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
“I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
RIP Professor Stephen Hawking 1942-2018