Stephen Hawking, scientist and genius

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Question:  True or False?   Doctors diagnosed Stephen Hawking with ALS at the age of 21, giving him two years to live.

Answer:  True.

When most people think about Stephen Hawking, the first things that come to mind are his tremendous accomplishments in the fields of physics and cosmology, and his book, A Brief History of Time, which made his complex scientific theories accessible to the average reader. Hawking has become such a giant in the field of science that it is easy to forget that he achieved these feats while living with a severe physical disability.

Screenshot of Stephen Hawking's website

Screenshot of Stephen Hawking’s website

To better understand him, let us start at the beginning. Stephen Hawking was born on 8 January, 1942, in the town of Oxford, England, the son of Frank and Isobel Hawking. His parents, both graduates of Oxford University, worked as a medical researcher and secretary at a medical research institute. Stephen and his family moved often during his childhood, and he was rarely able to find friends with whom he felt comfortable. However, those people who did grow close to him recognized his genius, giving him nicknames such as Einstein.

When the time for university came, Stephen’s father encouraged him to pursue a degree at University College, Oxford, his alma mater. Stephen was interested in studying mathematics, but because the college did not offer this field of study, he decided to study the sciences, with a focus on physics.

While his undergraduate performance showed that Stephen was obviously intelligent, his work ethic left much to be desired. He barely made first class honors at Oxford, and just made the cut for a graduate program at Cambridge, where he specialized in general relativity and cosmology.

It was during this time that his family noticed him becoming clumsier and persuaded him to see a doctor. After two weeks of medical testing, Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This condition causes the parts of the brain responsible for motor function to break down, resulting in the deterioration of control over the body. Stephen was given two years to live. He would go on to defy this prognosis by decades.

Stephen struggled to come to terms with his diagnosis.  It was only thanks to an evolving relationship with Jane Wilde, that he decided to continue with his research, as he felt that he would need a doctorate to find a suitable job and support a family. Following this realization, he began to make strides in his field, eventually achieving the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position once held by Isaac Newton. As he claimed himself, Stephen worked harder after being diagnosed with ALS than he ever had. In the following years, Stephen lost his ability to stand or write.

Shortly after his appointment to the prestigious post of Lucasian Professor, Stephen decided to write a text on cosmology accessible to the general public. However, soon after beginning the work, he fell seriously ill. His wife was given the option of stopping life support. She instead opted for a risky procedure that would save Stephen’s life, but which ultimately caused him to lose the ability to speak.

After recovering, Stephen started using a speech-generating communication device. Not dissuaded by this new challenge, Hawking went on to write the book that would become an international bestseller and propel him into celebrity status, A Brief History of Time.

Since the publication of his monumental work, Stephen has lost more of his motor ability, and now uses a system that requires him to communicate through twitches of his cheek, a process that takes hours to create mere sentences. Despite the time-consuming nature of this method, Stephen has authored numerous books in the past decades.  He has continued his research and enjoys his celebrity status.

Thanks to communication technology as well as his intelligence and perseverence, Hawking’s disability has done nothing to stymie his studies and breakthroughs in the fields of physics and cosmology. Hawking’s research has earned him numerous awards and honors, including a fellowship with the Royal Society, and the honor of Commander of the British Empire. In addition, Stephen makes many public appearances, taking a role the Simpsons and appearing in TV shows such as the Big Bang Theory.

To this day, still hard at work on his research more than 5 decades after being given two years to live, Stephen Hawking serves as a role model for people with disabilities.


Primary Sources

Dreifus, Claudia, “Life and the Cosmos, Word by Painstaking Word”, New York Times, 9 May, 2011.

Mialet, Helene. Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject. Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2012, print.

Secondary Sources

Mialet, Helene. “Hawking, Stephen (1942 –  ) scientist.” The Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Vol. 2. New York: Infobase, 2009. 428. Print.

O’Connor, J.J. and E.F. Robertson, “Stephen William Hawking”  School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews Scotland.  September 2009.

“Stephen Hawking – Brief Biography.”  Stephen Hawking – The Official Website.  undated.