Stephen Hawking (1942-) is a retired Cambridge theoretical physicist. He is best known for his popularization of black hole and cosmological research, as well as his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which has left him paralyzed and only able to communicate with a special voice synthesizer.
– Youth and ALS –
Hawking was born to a biologist, Frank Hawking, during the Second World War. He was initially a modestly successful student at St. Albans public school. (English public schools are what American readers would generally regard as private boarding schools.) However, under the influence of a math teacher he highly respected, Hawking applied to Oxford and studied physics. Here too his work was often below standard, although his instructors noted that he achieved his grades while doing virtually no preparatory work, and was more than able to hold his own during oral exams.
Hawking graduated and initially decided to study astronomy, but left Oxford in frustration when he learned the university’s astronomy faculty were only interested in sunspots. This led him to Oxford’s traditional rival institution, Cambridge, where he was able to study cosmology and build the foundations for his highly successful career.
No sooner were the pieces of his career coming together, however, than Hawking was struck by the disease which has been most associated with him ever since, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). The initial symptoms progressed rapidly: during the mid-1970s, after they first appeared, he quickly lost his ability to perform many everyday functions, and began to suffer from severely impaired speech.
He was still able to communicate vocally, although with difficulty, until later in the 1980s, when a bout with pneumonia required an emergency tracheotomy. It was that operation which permanently damaged his vocal cords, and ever since Hawking has been forced to speak through a synthesizer. Now, Hawking’s disease has progressed further, and he currently creates words for the synthesizer by navigating through a computer menu by twitching his eyebrow.
– Career in Theoretical Physics –
By this time, nevertheless, Hawking was already undertaking cutting-edge research in cosmology and in the study of black holes, a field which led him and colleague Roger Penrose to make a number of important new models of space-time. However, he is best known to the public not for the research itself but for his popularization of that field of research, beginning with the bestseller A Brief History of Time in 1988. A Brief History of Time attempted to simplify modern theoretical physics for the lay public. He continues to engage the public; for instance, in 2010 Hawking produced a series on the universe (Stephen Hawking’s Universe) which incited considerable media commentary thanks to his observations on time travel and the danger posed by first contact with aggressive alien civilizations.
In October 2009, Hawking retired from Cambridge after thirty years of teaching. The Lucasian Professorship has passed to a fellow theoretical physicist, Michael Green, but Hawking continues to hold a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as well as at the Perimeter Institute in Canada.
Hawking is particularly noted for his unusually frequent invocation of “God” when discussing the deepest questions of theoretical cosmology. However, he has never confessed any particular religious affiliation other than agnosticism, and therefore these references to God should probably be interpreted as a figure of speech rather than a literal belief in deity on his part.