The brightest star in the firmament of science
“Great men are not born great, they grow great,” thus says Mario Puzo in his world-famous novel ‘The Godfather’. Indeed, Stephen Hawking – a great physicist and author of ‘A Brief History of Time – who passed away on March 14, was a true manifestation of what Mario Puzo calls ‘great men’. Stephen Hawking was, indubitably, the brightest star in the firmament of science as his insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences, in millions. His courage and persistence along with his brilliance inspired people across the world. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.
Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on January 8, 1942, the day that marked Galileo’s 300th death anniversary – Quite interestingly, he died on March 14, 2018, the one hundred and thirty-ninth anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth.
In 1959, his family moved to St. Albans where he attended St. Albans School. Although Hawking was always ranked at the lower end of his class, his school friends nicknamed him ‘Einstein’ and encouraged his interest in science. His ambition brought him a scholarship to University College Oxford to read Natural Science. There he studied physics and graduated with a first class honours degree. He went to Cambridge in 1962 as a PhD student, and rose to become the Professor of Mathematics, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, in 1979. In 2007, he founded the Cambridge University’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. He retired from this position in 2009.
Professor Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – or Lou Gehrig’s disease – a disease in which motor neurons die, leaving the brain incapable of controlling muscles, when he was 21. He was, then, a doctoral student in cosmology at the University of Cambridge. Physicians, initially, gave him just a few years to live. This was devastating news for him and his family. However, his disease advanced more slowly than expected. He went on to have an active career for decades, both as a theoretical physicist and as a popularizer of science. Still, Hawking progressively lost use of most of his muscles, and for the last three decades of his life, he was communicating almost exclusively through a voice synthesizer.
A few events prevented him from becoming completely despondent. The first of these came while Hawking was still in hospital. There, he shared a room with a boy suffering from leukaemia. Relative to what his roommate was going through, Hawking later reflected, his situation seemed more tolerable. Not long after he was released from the hospital, Hawking had a dream that he was going to be executed. He said this dream made him realize that there were still things to do with his life. In a sense, Hawking’s disease helped him turn into the noted scientist he became. Before the diagnosis, Hawking had not always focused on his studies. With the sudden realization that he might not live long enough to earn his PhD, Hawking poured himself into research. It also put in peril his ability to do work.
Science to His Help
The predicament caught the attention of a California computer programmer, who had developed a speaking programme that could be directed by head or eye movement. The invention allowed Hawking to select words on a computer screen that were then passed through a speech synthesizer. At the time of its introduction, Hawking, who still had use of his fingers, selected his words with a handheld clicker. Eventually, with virtually all control of his body gone, Hawking directed the programme through a cheek muscle attached to a sensor. With the help of this programme, as well as of his assistants, Hawking continued to write at a prolific rate.
His books, particularly ‘A Brief History of Time’, became blockbuster successes. He relished making cameos on television shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory.
Over the years, Stephen Hawking wrote or co-wrote a total of 15 books. Professor Hawking broke new ground on the basic laws which govern the universe, including the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. At the same time, he also sought to explain many of these complex scientific ideas to a wider audience through popular books, most notably his bestseller ‘A Brief History of Time’. The short, informative book became an account of cosmology for the masses and offered an overview of space and time, the existence of God and the future. The work was an instant success, spending more than four years atop the London Sunday Times’ best-seller list. Since its publication, it has sold millions of copies worldwide and been translated into more than 40 languages. A Brief History of Time also wasn’t as easy to understand as some had hoped. So, in 2001, Hawking followed up his book with The Universe in a Nutshell, which offered a more illustrated guide to cosmology’s big theories. In 2005, Hawking authored an even more accessible A Briefer History of Time, which further simplified the original work’s core concepts and touched upon the newest developments in the field like string theory.
Awards & Honours
Professor Hawking was the recipient of numerous awards, medals and prizes. He was awarded the CBE in 1982, was made a Companion of Honour in 1989, and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was conferred with the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the Albert Einstein Award, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Fundamental Physics Prize and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Basic Sciences. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences.