The 20th century is responsible for some of the most outstanding scientific breakthroughs the world has ever known. Great thinkers and scientists, such as Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking each dared to question humanity’s potential for reaching the stars and did much to advance our ability to do so.
Of these three, Stephen Hawking can be said to have one of the most tragic and inspiring lives in the history of science. Not only have his amazing discoveries made an incredible difference on the world stage, but he has managed to conduct his work from Cambridge to California while being ravaged by a devastating motor neurone disease for most of his adult life.
Despite this tremendous obstacle so early in Hawking’s professional career, Hawking has managed to overcome his illness in many ingenious ways, all while creating a persona for himself as one of the most inspiring scientific theorists on Earth.
Stephen Hawking the Man
Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England in 1942 to Frank and Isobel Hawking. As his father was a research biologist, Stephen was constantly surrounded by the world of science and academia. Noticing that his son was precocious in the fields of mathematics and science, Hawking’s father suggested that he apply to his alma-mater: the University College in Oxford.
While Hawking succeeded at obtaining his undergraduate degree at the college, his study habits and examination performance was not great. However, his instructors knew he possessed a great storehouse of ideas in his mind, and was often more clever than even his examiners – despite his less than superior performance as a student and test-taker.
When Hawking began his career as a graduate student at Trinity College in Cambridge, he began to experience symptoms of a disease that would completely alter the course of his life. The disease was diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the United States), which is a debilitating affliction that essentially cuts off all communication from the brain to the muscles. As a result, the muscles begin to atrophy, and many of the actions we take for granted, such as breathing, eating and swallowing, require a strenuous, if not impossible effort.
While the disease has been exceptionally strenuous for Hawking to deal with over the years, the love and support his family, colleagues and friends have shown him must be credited for maintaining the man’s drive to continue excelling in his field. As a result of his great work, Hawking has earned several prestigious awards over the course of his career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the United States — which was awarded to the scientist by President Barack Obama in 2009. All things considered, Stephen Hawking could quite possibly be the most inspirational figure the scientific field has ever known.
Stephen Hawking the Scientist
Hawking’s most renowned work, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988 and uses various theories, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, to explain various cosmic phenomena, as well as the history and evolution of the universe from the Big Bang onward. Hawking also manages to take complex mathematics and explain them in such a way that the average reader could understand and learn from them without significant training in the field. The book included an introduction by Carl Sagan, who was a major proponent of Hawking’s work, and has sold over 10 million copies since its publication.
In addition to his various contributions to the advancement of mathematics and quantum physics, Hawking also has been a proponent and innovator of communication technology for sufferers of degenerative muscular diseases such as ALS.
Shortly after contracting the disease, Hawking lost not only his ability to move without assistance, but also his ability to communicate. This was corrected by the construction of a speech synthesizer connected to a small keyboard that Hawking is able to communicate with effectively without much physical strain or movement. Moreover, similar to the features we use today with our own communication devices, Hawking uses a state-of-the-art predictive text entry system that substantially reduces the amount of time it takes for him to communicate. As a result, Hawking was able to continue his research—as well as teach and give lectures—relatively unhindered by the ravages of ALS.
When considering the life and work of Stephen Hawking, it’s difficult not to be in awe of the man’s resilience and perseverance when faced with unimaginable odds. Hawking was able to use his knowledge and resolve to establish a method of communicating his ideas by using synthetic voice technology. In the process, he crafted an iconic persona for himself, which is only strengthened by the fame and notoriety of his signature computerized voice.
Hawking’s scientific ideas, though tremendously complicated for the layperson to understand, were communicated effectively by Hawking in the many lectures he has given throughout his career, as well as the several books he has published on various scientific topics.
Today, Hawking continues his quest to unravel the secrets of the universe, even as his disease continues to slowly progress. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to this man for his will to move on from a disease that would have left many of us struggling for reasons to go on. By choosing to move forward, Hawking has done much to help shape our perceptions of the cosmos, and the hope that we may someday be able to reach them.