In the early hours of March 14th, somewhere in a quiet corner of Cambridge, a very bright star went out. Aged 76, more than half a century longer than doctors expected him to live, Stephen William Hawking died peacefully in his home, leaving this world with one less scientist, one less comedian, one less wonderful human.
Born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, in 1942, Hawking was born to a ‘slightly eccentric’ family who were known locally for their habit of reading books at the dinner table. Despite his father’s wish for him to go into medicine, the call of maths and physics pulled young Hawking all the way to Cambridge University where he earned his doctorate and met his first wife, Jane Wilde.
Aged 21, Hawking was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, known more commonly as Motor Neurone Disease in Ireland and the UK, or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in the US.
This neuronal disease would gradually paralyse him over the course of his life. Originally not expected to live to see the end of his Ph.D., it turned out that he had an early-onset, slow-progressing variant of Motor Neurone Disease that, although severely limiting, meant that Hawking survived more than 50 years past the 2.5 years he was given.
Hawking also credits the NHS for his long survival, and during his life was a fervent campaigner for socialised healthcare. Sensitive to the fact that had he been born in another country, his disabilities would have made his life not only shorter, but more limited, he said in 2017, ‘the care I received has enabled me to live my life as I want and to contribute to major advances in our understanding of the universe.’ Hawking believed that civilised society had an obligation to provide this level of care to all those living with disabilities and chronic conditions. In his own words, ‘When politicians and private healthcare industry lobbyists claim that we cannot afford the NHS, this is the exact inversion of the truth. We cannot afford not to have the NHS’.
He was initially hesitant to use a wheelchair, but once he started became notorious around the streets of Cambridge for his wild driving and intentionally running over student toes. He travelled the world giving lectures. When he lost his voice completely to a bout of pneumonia, he relied on a speech-generating device guided by his hand, and later a single cheek muscle. Famously he bought the rights to a computerised voice that he often used, making the iconic speech pattern uniquely his, noting ‘It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American, or Scottish.’ He later recorded his voice for the Pink Floyd song ‘Keep Talking’ in 1993.
Over the course of his career, he turned the world of physics on its head several times over. His work with mathematical physicist Roger Penrose showed that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity implied the universe began in the big bang, and would end in black holes, and that ‘the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science.’ (Hawking’s website). This revelation that the universe would have begun in an point of infinitely dense spacetime, applied the mathematics of black holes to the universe, showing that this big bang singularity lay in our distant past: the big bang.
In the early 1970s he became a scientific superstar with his theory of what came to be called ‘Hawking radiation’. Drawing on quantum theory he declared that black holes should allow radiation to escape, aren’t completely ‘black’, and should gradually emit heat and pop out of existence. For a normal sized black hole this ‘popping’ process is extremely slow, but a miniature black hole would emit heat at a fantastic rate, eventually exploding with the same energy as a million 1-megaton hydrogen bombs!
Arguably his greatest claim to fame, however, was the publication of his first book ‘A Brief History of Time’ in 1988. A scientific book of the universe for non-scientists, it explained complex concepts and mathematics in layman’s terms, sold more than 10 million copies and stayed on the Sunday Times bestseller list for an unprecedented 237 weeks! In the following years the book made Hawking a household name internationally, was translated into 40 different languages, and even made into a Spielberg-produced film. His stardom only grew from there: lecturing at the White House, winning many of the most prestigious awards in physics and mathematics, receiving the presidential medal of freedom from President Obama, and even turning down a knighthood!
Over the decades Hawking courted controversy and pop culture alike, making cameo appearances in shows such as the Simpsons, Futurama, the Big Bang Theory, Red Dwarf, and Star Trek: the Next Generation (where he played poker with Newton and Einstein). In fact, when touring the Star Trek sets, Hawking made a rare request to be taken from his wheelchair, so that he could sit in the captain’s chair. He supported nuclear disarmament, academic boycotting of Israel, stem cell research, and believed that humanity faced several great threats to their very survival, including Artificial Intelligence, aliens, overpopulation, climate change, and Donald Trump. He was fond of making scientific wagers with his colleagues, though he had a knack for losing them. In 2012 he lost $100 to Gordon Kane on a bet that the Higgs boson wouldn’t be discovered.
Inextricably linked to other scientific greats throughout history, born on Galileo’s death day, and dying on Einstein’s birthday, he held the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics in Cambridge, a position previously held by Isaac Newton, Paul Dirac, and Charles Babbage. He inspired the world to look up and look beyond ourselves as individuals. As a scientist, as a personality, as arguably the most famous wheelchair user in modern history. The Motor Neurone Disease Association, which he had supported from 2008, reported that after his death its website had crashed, due to an overwhelming influx of charitable donations.
In conclusion I give you a message from Mr. Hawking in his own words: ‘However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.’ Also, ‘people who boast about their I.Q. are losers.’
Whichever fits the day you’re having, I suppose.
Aisling Brennan – Science Writer