2014 was the year of the English scientist. Popular films The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything brought the famous figures Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking to life on the silver screen. Comparisons of the films abound, but the two figures could not be more different. Turing invented the computer to help win World War II for a society that would never accept him during his lifetime, but Hawking’s only war has been with his own body. As a world-renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking has pushed science forward with nothing nearly as concrete as a computer, and yet unlike Turing, he has managed to become a beloved household name. Today, Stephen Hawking’s life is nearing its end, but his contributions to human knowledge and his life story both remain indelible and profoundly moving.
When he was just 17, Hawking was admitted to the prestigious Oxford University, the oldest English-speaking school in the world. There he studied physics. He found his coursework so easy that he could spend the majority of his time socializing, reading science fiction, and participating in the school’s “Crew” rowing team. Despite Hawking’s innate talents, however, his avoidance of academic work began to show and he just barely passed his final exams. Fortunately, his oral exam’s proctors realized Hawking’s intellectual promise, and with their help, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge for graduate studies in Theoretical Physics in 1962.
Hawking was not the first person to postulate the Big Bang. That honor goes to a Catholic priest, oddly enough. Georges Lemaitre used Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding to postulate a “Cosmic Egg” or “primeval atom,” from which the universe emerged during God’s act of creation. However, Hawking’s Cambridge PhD work in cosmology, the study of the origins of the universe, provided a science-based understanding of the Big Bang which is still the most widely accepted theory. Basing his ideas about the Big Bang on the lectures of Roger Penrose, Hawking became fascinated with black holes, a fascination which would extend throughout his career.
When a star’s energy output is no longer sufficient enough to allow the star to hold its shape, the star’s mass collapses upon itself. These “star deaths” can take on several forms, including the explosion of a supernova, the quiet radiance of a white dwarf, or, in the case of extremely large stars, the mystery of a black hole. Imagine all of the energy and weight of a star many times larger than our own sun compacted into an area much, much small than a pin, smaller than an atom even. A black hole is an object in which there is so much mass in such a tiny space that not even light can escape its unfathomably strong gravitational field. The infinitely small space in which the black hole’s mass is focused is called a “singularity.” Hawking postulated that a similar singularity might have been the start of the universe, and the Big Bang could be thought of as a black hole running in reverse. With his PhD thesis, he demonstrated the mathematics that seemed to prove that it was possible and even likely that our universe began this way.
During his time at Cambridge, Hawking discovered that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. Within several weeks, Hawking went from being merely clumsy to physically unstable, sometimes falling over for no obvious reason, and once even knocking his front teeth out. This wasn’t enough to convince the in-denial young man to visit a doctor. It ultimately took his family’s insistence after his speech began to slur badly. ALS was a shocking diagnosis. Famous today because of the ice bucket challenge, amytrophic lateral sclerosis is a motor-neuron disease. In ALS, the motor neurons responsible for voluntary muscle movement in a person’s brain and spinal cord begin to deteriorate, and eventually die. A person affected with ALS slowly loses control over their own body. In Hawking’s case, the early effects were difficulty walking, talking, and swallowing. The ultimate result of ALS is death, as eventually breathing becomes impossible. The average survival between onset of the disease and death is about three years. Doctors informed the young Hawking that he had roughly two years to live.
Although he first sunk into a depression at the death sentence, Hawking beat the prognosis one day at a time, even as ALS destroyed his physical body. Hawking was fortunate that his version of the disease did not damage his mental faculties and he could continue his physics work. It was both his pursuit of the PhD and a newfound love interest, Jane Wilde, which kept him moving forward at this difficult time. Hawking has stated that Jane “gave him something to live for,” and the two were engaged in 1964. Even as Hawking’s body deteriorated, the couple were able to start a family together. As it turns out, ALS generally spares the autonomic nervous system, which serves involuntary bodily functions like the five senses and, importantly, sexual response. Their first child, Robert, was born in 1967. An additional son and a daughter would follow in the pursuant decade.
Although Jane was a loving and supportive wife, Hawking’s situation eventually took its toll on their marriage. By 1969, Hawking needed a wheelchair, and by the late 70’s, Hawking could barely move or speak. In 1974, the couple decided that they needed help. This role was first filled by a rotating cast of Stephen Hawking’s graduate students, now that he had taken up teaching. The students would live with the couple and aid in his care, allowing Jane to focus on her own studies and raising their children. Eventually, the role would be filled by a member of Jane’s church, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, for whom Jane developed romantic feelings. Their friendship remained platonic, but the marriage was tested further.
Hawking’s research during this time again focused on black holes. Hawking worked to combine Einstein’s general relativity theory of gravity with the evolving theories of quantum mechanics, the study of undetectably fast events which occur at an unthinkably small, sub-atomic level. These two cutting edge fields of study would someday by united in a perfect theory or set of equations that could describe everything, Hawking believed. For now, he would have to settle for studying their interaction when it came to black holes. Hawking postulated, then later proved, that when these tiny, fast quantum events which are always happening everywhere occur on the edge of a black hole’s field of supergravity, it’s “event horizon,” the quantum system is thrown out of whack. The surprising result is that black holes to slowly lose mass, in an effect now called “Hawking Radiation.” Over a large enough time span, a black hole can evaporate entirely! This research and the resulting “four laws of black hole thermodynamics” won Hawking great accolades, but no real fame outside of the scientific community. One of those four laws has since been overturned, but Hawking’s general theory of black hole radiation remains accepted today.
In 1985, Hawking caught pneumonia and was put on life support. Although the physics scholar drifted close to death, his wife refused to give the hospital permission to remove life support. Hawking eventually recovered, but many of his remaining physical faculties were lost. He now required around-the-clock nursing care, and would never speak again owing to a related tracheotomy. Hawking would eventually fall for one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, his second wife. Mason’s husband at the time, however, was a computer engineer, and he helped configure Dr. Hawking’s electrical wheelchair with a computer system. It allowed Hawking to generate an artificial voice from a speech synthesizer using a small hand-switch by selecting from a bank of 3000 common words.
In 1984, Hawking completed the first draft of his most famous work, A Brief History of Time, which explains black holes, the origin of the universe, and the birth of time itself. His editors pushed him to explain his ideas in simple, easy to grasp language. This frustrated Hawking, but his acquiescence to their request was a primary reason that the book became a bestseller, selling over 10 million copies in 35 languages, a nearly unheard-of feat for a science book. The book contains only a single mathematical equation, E = mc2, Einstein’s famous equivalence describing the relationship between energy, mass, and the speed of light, the constant “c.”
Hawking’s life since his breakthrough has been turbulent, but the famous scientist has not slowed down. The newfound celebrity increasingly drove a wedge between him and his first wife Jane. Their differing religious views also contributed to the problem given that Hawking is a famous and outspoken atheist. Finally, in 1990, Hawking left Jane for his nurse Elaine Mason. While their divorce was sorrowful, it allowed Jane to pursue her relationship with Jonathan Heller Jones, whom she later married. Since then, Jane and Hawking have become good friends and remain so to this day.
By 2005, Hawking would lose all control over his hands, and now the computer is controlled with the use of a cheek muscle, one of the only muscles that Hawking can still control. By 2009, Hawking could not control his wheelchair at all, and the subsequent years have brought on increased breathing problems, a change that often signals the terminal part of the ALS disease.
As sad as it is to say, Hawking’s odds-defying battle with ALS may finally be drawing to an end. In the 50 years since Hawking was given two years to live through, he has changed the face of physics, brought science to a mass public audience, and raised three children who now have children of their own. In July 2015, Hawking helped to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives, a new search for extraterrestrial life. Perhaps his fascinating legacy will be one day carried on by an entirely new species.
Stephen Hawking’s Death
Hawking died in his Cambridge home on March 14, 2018, after living with ALS for more than 50 years. He was 76 years old. According to reports, his official cause of death was neurone disease, which often causes respiratory failure toward the end. His final broadcast interview, which was about the detection of gravitational waves, had aired in 2017.
Following his death, the Gonville and Caius College, which Hawking had been a fellow at for over 50 years, flew their flag at half-mast. A book of condolences was also signed by students. The IPC President Andrew Parsons also made a tribute to Hawking in his closing speech at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
A funeral service was held on Saturday, March 31, 2018, at Great St Mary’s Church. Hundreds of people had gathered on the streets as the hearse carrying the casket arrived at the church. Guests at the funeral included astrophysicist Brian May, astronaut Tim Peake, physicist Kip Thorne, and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Hawking in the BBC film Hawking, many of whom made speeches at the service.
Following the cremation, his ashes were buried in a corner of Westminster Abbey—between the graves of Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin. His memorial stone, which depicts a number of rings, has his most famed equation and the words, “Here likes what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942-2018”.
In June 2018, it was announced that Hawking’s words would be beamed into space to reach the nearest black hole. One of his final research studies, ‘Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair’ was later published in October 2018. Many of his personal possessions including his wheelchair and doctoral thesis were auctioned off with the proceeds going to his estate.
He is survived by his three children and three grandchildren (he and his second wife had divorced back in 2006).