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Regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists and cosmetologist in history, Stephen Hawking, his work on the origins and structure of the universe, from the Big Bang to black holes, revolutionized the field, while his best-selling books have appealed to readers who may not have Hawking’s scientific background.

Hawking was born on 8 January 1942( 300 years to the day after the death of ‘astronomer’ Galileo Galilei) in Oxford, Oxfordshire to Frank and Isobel Hawking, both his parents attended the University of Oxford, Hawking had two younger sisters, Philippa and Mary, and an adopted brother, Edward.

In 1950, when Hawking’s father became head of the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, Hawking and his family moved to St Albans, Hertfordshire. In St Albans, the family was considered highly intelligent and somewhat eccentric; meals were often spent with each person silently reading a book. The Hawking’s also housed bees in the basement and produced fireworks in the greenhouse.

His father wanted his eldest child to go into medicine, but at an early age, Hawking showed a passion for science and the sky. That was evident to his mother, who, along with her children, often stretched out in the backyard on summer evenings to stare up at the stars. “Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder,” she remembered. “And I could see that the stars would draw him.” Hawking was also frequently on the go. With his sister Mary, Hawking, who loved to climb, devised different entry routes into the family home. He loved to dance and also took an interest in rowing.

Hawking began his schooling at the Byron House School in Highgate, London. He later blamed its “progressive methods” for his failure to learn to read while at the school. In St Albans, the eight-year-old Hawking attended St Albans High School for Girls for a few months. At that time, younger boys could attend one of the houses.

Hawking attended Radlett School, an independent school in the village of Radlett in Hertfordshire, for a year, an independent school in the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire after Hawking passed the eleven-plus a year early.The family placed a high value on education.

Hawking’s father wanted his son to attend the well-regarded Westminster School, but the 13-year-old Hawking was ill on the day of the scholarship examination, so Hawking remained at St Alban’s.  A positive consequence was that Hawking remained with a close group of friends with whom he enjoyed board games, the manufacture of fireworks, model aeroplanes and boats, and long discussions about Christianity and extrasensory perception.

Stephen Hawking

From 1958 on, with the help of the mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, they built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard, and other recycled components. Although known at school as “Einstein”, Hawking was not initially successful academically.

Hawking’s father advised him to study medicine. He wanted his son to attend University College, Oxford, his own alma mater. As it was not possible to read mathematics there at the time, Hawking decided to study physics and chemistry. Despite his headmaster’s advice to wait until the next year, Hawking was awarded a scholarship after taking the examinations in March 1959. Hawking began his university education at University College, Oxford at the age of 17, he joined the college boat club, the University College Boat Club. Hawking had estimated that he studied about a thousand hours during his three years at Oxford.

These unimpressive study habits made sitting his finals a challenge, and he decided to answer only theoretical physics questions rather than those requiring factual knowledge. A first-class honors degree was a condition of acceptance for his planned graduate study in cosmology at the University of Cambridge. Hawking was concerned that he was viewed as a lazy and difficult student.

So, when asked at the oral to describe his future plans, he said, “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.” After receiving a first-class BA (Hons.) degree in natural science and completing a trip to Iran with a friend, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in October 1962.

Hawking’s first year as a doctoral student was difficult, he found his training in mathematics inadequate for work in general relativity and cosmology. After being diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Hawking fell into a depression – though his doctors advised that he continue with his studies, he felt there was little point. However, his disease progressed more slowly than doctors had predicted.

Although Hawking had difficulty walking unsupported, and his speech was almost unintelligible, an initial diagnosis that he had only two years to live proved unfounded. Hawking started developing a reputation for brilliance and brashness when he publicly challenged the work of Fred Hoyle and his student Jayant Narlikar at a lecture in June 1964.

stephen hawkins

When Hawking began his graduate studies, there was much debate in the physics community about the prevailing theories of the creation of the universe: the Big Bang and Steady State theories. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the center of black holes, Hawking applied the same thinking to the entire universe; and, during 1965, he wrote his thesis on this topic.

Hawking’s thesis was approved in 1966. There were other positive developments: Hawking received a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College; he obtained his Ph.D. degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology, in March 1966; and his essay titled “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” shared top honours with one by Penrose to win that year’s prestigious Adams Prize

In 1974, Hawking’s research turned him into a celebrity within the scientific world when he showed that black holes aren’t the information vacuums that scientists had thought they were. In simple terms, Hawking demonstrated that matter, in the form of radiation, can escape the gravitational force of a collapsed star.

When Hawking’s radiation theory was born, the announcement sent shock waves of excitement through the scientific world. Hawking was named a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 32 and later earned the prestigious Albert Einstein Award, among other honors. He also earned teaching stints at Caltech in Pasadena, California, where he served as visiting professor, and at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge.

In August 2015, Hawking appeared at a conference in Sweden to discuss new theories about black holes and the vexing “information paradox.” Addressing the issue of what becomes of an object that enters a black hole, Hawking proposed that information about the physical state of the object is stored in 2D from within an outer boundary known as the “event horizon.” Noting that black holes “are not the eternal prisons they were once thought,” he left open the possibility that the information could be released into another universe.

Hawking had a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that gradually paralyzed him over the decades. Hawking had experienced increasing clumsiness during his final year at Oxford, including a fall on some stairs and difficulties when rowing.

The problems worsened, and his speech became slightly slurred and his family noticed the changes when he returned home for Christmas, and medical investigations were begun. The diagnosis of motor neuron disease came when Hawking was 21, in 1963. At the time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years.

In the late 1960s, Hawking’s physical abilities declined: he began to use crutches and ceased lecturing regularly. As he slowly lost the ability to write, he developed compensatory visual methods, including seeing equations in terms of geometry. The physicist Werner Israel later compared the achievements to Mozart composing an entire symphony in his head. Hawking was, however, fiercely independent and unwilling to accept help or make concessions for his disabilities.

He preferred to be regarded as “a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person. He required much persuasion to accept the use of a wheelchair at the end of the 1960s but ultimately became notorious for the wildness of his wheelchair driving.

Hawking was a popular and witty colleague, but his illness, as well as his reputation for brashness, distanced him from some. Hawking’s speech deteriorated, and by the late 1970s, he could be understood by only his family and closest friends. To communicate with others, someone who knew him well would translate his speech into intelligible speech. Spurred by a dispute with the university over who would pay for the ramp needed for him to enter his workplace, Hawking and his wife campaigned for improved access and support for those with disabilities in Cambridge, including adapted student housing at the university.

In general, however, Hawking had ambivalent feelings about his role as a disability rights champion: while wanting to help others, he also sought to detach himself from his illness and its challenges. During a visit to CERN on the border of France and Switzerland in mid-1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia, which in his condition was life-threatening; the consequence was a tracheotomy, which would require round-the-clock nursing care and remove what remained of his speech.

The National Health Service was ready to pay for a nursing home, but Jane was determined that he would live at home. The cost of the care was funded by an American foundation.Nurses were hired for the three shifts required to provide the round-the-clock support he required. One of those employed was Elaine Mason, who was to become Hawking’s second wife.

For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card. But in 1986 he received a computer program called the “Equalizer” from Walter Woltosz, CEO of Words Plus, who had developed an earlier version of the software to help his mother-in-law, who also suffered from ALS and had lost her ability to speak and write. In a method he used for the rest of his life, Hawking could now simply press a switch to select phrases, words or letters from a bank of about 2,500–3,000 that are scanned.The program was originally run on a desktop computer.

However, Elaine Mason’s husband, David, a computer engineer, adapted a small computer and attached it to his wheelchair. Released from the need to use somebody to interpret his speech, Hawking commented that “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice.” The voice he uses has an American accent and is no longer produced. Despite the availability of other voices, Hawking has retained this original voice, saying that he prefers it and identifies with it. At this point, Hawking activated a switch using his hand and could produce up to 15 words a minute. Lectures were prepared in advance and were sent to the speech synthesizer in short sections to be delivered.

Hawking gradually lost the use of his hand, and in 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute. With this decline there was a risk of his developing locked-in syndrome, so Hawking collaborated with Intel researchers on systems that could translate his brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations.

After several prototypes that did not perform as planned, they settled on an adaptive word predictor made by the London-based startup SwiftKey, which used a system similar to his original technology. Hawking had an easier time adapting to the new system, which was further developed after inputting large amounts of Hawking’s papers and other written materials and uses predictive software similar to other smartphone keyboards.

By 2009 he could no longer drive his wheelchair independently, but the same people who created his new typing mechanics were working on a method to drive his chair using movements made by his chin. This proved difficult since Hawking could not move his neck, and trials showed that while he could indeed drive the chair, the movement was sporadic and jumpy. Near the end of his life, he was experiencing increased breathing difficulties, requiring a ventilator at times, and had been hospitalized several times.

stephen hawking

Starting in the 1990s, Hawking accepted the mantle of role model for disabled people, lecturing and participating in fundraising activities. At the turn of the century, he and eleven other luminaries signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments to prevent disability and protect disability rights. In 1999, Hawking was awarded the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society.

Motivated by the desire to increase public interest in spaceflight and to show the potential of people with disabilities, in 2007 he participated in zero-gravity flight in a “Vomit Comet“, courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation, during which he experienced weightlessness eight times.

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In August 2012, Hawking narrated the “Enlightenment” segment of the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony in London. In 2013, the biographical documentary film Hawking, in which Hawking himself is featured, was released. In September 2013, he expressed support for the legalization of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. In August 2014, Hawking accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge to promote ALS/MND awareness and raise contributions for research.

As he had pneumonia in 2013, he was advised not to have ice poured over him, but his children volunteered to accept the challenge on his behalf.

Popular books written by Stephen Hawking

  • A Brief History of Time (1988)
  • Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993)
  • The Universe in a Nutshell (2001)
  • The Dreams That Stuff Is Made of: The Most Astounding Papers of Quantum Physics and How They Shook the Scientific World (2011)
  • My Brief History (2013)
  • The Nature of Space and Time (with Roger Penrose) (1996)
  • A Briefer History of Time (with Leonard Mlodinow) (2005)
  • The Grand Design (with Leonard Mlodinow) (2010)

Forewords

  • Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Kip Thorne, and introduction by Frederick Seitz) (1994)

Co-written with his daughter Lucy.

  • George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007)
  • George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009)
  • George and the Big Bang (2011)
  • George and the Unbreakable Code (2014)
  • George and the Blue Moon (2016)

Awards won by Stephen Hawking

  • Adams Prize (1966)
  • Eddington Medal (1975)
  • Maxwell Medal and Prize(1976)
  • Heineman Prize (1976)
  • Hughes Medal (1976)
  • Albert Einstein Award (1978)
  • RAS Gold Medal (1985)
  • Dirac Medal (1987)
  • Wolf Prize (1988)
  • Prince of Asturias Award(1989)
  • Andrew Gemant Award(1998)
  • Naylor Prize and Lectureship(1999)
  • Lilienfeld Prize (1999)
  • Albert Medal (Royal Society of Arts) (1999)
  • Copley Medal (2006)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009)
  • Fundamental Physics Prize(2012)
  • BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (2015)

Hawking died at his home in Cambridge, England, early in the morning of 14 March 2018 – Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday. His family issued a statement expressing their grief. They did not reveal the cause of his death, only stating that he “died peacefully”.

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