A piece just published online by The Times:
In 1964 a lecture at the Royal Society was rudely interrupted. Fred Hoyle, a titan of physics and a firm opponent of the big bang theory of creation, had been presenting his latest research. From the back, from a young and visibly shaking man, came the shout: “You’re wrong!” Hoyle, furious, asked the man why. He replied: “I’ve worked it out.”
That young man was Stephen Hawking and he was shaking not from fear, but because of illness. Suffering from motor neurone disease, according to the best medical estimates at the time he had two years to live.
In the 54 years that followed, not only did Hawking not die, intellectually he thrived. Although his arguments in 1964 did not do much to worry Hoyle, among his most important later work was research into the start of the universe, demonstrating that Albert Einstein’s theories implied space and time did indeed have a beginning with the big bang, the theory that Hoyle had argued so vehemently against.
This work alone would have been a great achievement, but subsequent research into black holes and their emission of radiation — which came to be known as Hawking radiation — justified his position as arguably the world’s most famous scientist. While his fame might have been appropriate to his scientific achievements, he was the first to admit that they were not the real reason he became a global celebrity.
By the time of his death, Hawking was probably better known for his appearance on the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory than his development of the actual big bang theory. In his struggle with motor neurone disease he came to symbolise a refusal to let a disability define you. As his physical faculties were lost one by one, his continuing mental abilities were, for many, a moving demonstration of the transcendent power of the mind.
Hawking, with acerbic clear-sightedness, had his own interpretation of his appeal. “No one can resist the idea of a crippled genius,” he said.
By the end though, even “crippled” seemed an inadequate description. Having lost all movement in his fingers, he was left with nothing that responded to his brain but for a tiny muscle in his cheek, which he could twitch to send a signal to his computer that eventually produced painstakingly constructed sentences from an electronic voice synthesizer.
This flat, almost Dalek-like voice, intoning his ideas in a transatlantic accent became, especially for lay individuals to whom the scientific ideas were inaccessible, as much a part of the miracle of science as the ideas themselves. And the knowledge that they came from a helpless invalid, requiring round-the-clock nursing care, whose existence might be snuffed out at any time by a moment of carelessness or malice, only served to add to the acute poignancy of Hawking’s situation.
Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo. He enjoyed the coincidence, but accepted it as just that: a coincidence. “I estimate that about 200,000 other babies were also born that day,” he said once. “I don’t know whether any of them was later interested in astronomy.”
His father was a research biologist specialising in tropical diseases and his mother a philosophy, politics and economics graduate from Oxford. Growing up in a rambling family home, the eldest of four children, Hawking was educated at St Albans School. Belying his later coolness towards religion, he won a divinity prize. His socialist sympathies, which were to stay with him, were beginning to take root and were supported by his mother, who took him on an Aldermaston march.
Looking back he would maintain that he was not an exceptional pupil, but conceded that his friends called him Einstein, “so presumably they saw signs of something better”.
They were not the only ones. He won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, where he took a BA in physics before going on to Cambridge to begin his doctoral studies in gravity and cosmology. His parents noticed he appeared clumsy and had a slight speech impediment after returning from his first term. After a fall when ice skating he went to the doctor, and was later diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, and given two years to live. He was 21.
He initially coped, he said, by shutting himself in his room and listening to Wagner. As the progress of his disease appeared to slow, though, he threw himself back into his studies — and into investigating the subject that would make his name.
When Hawking had applied to study at Cambridge he hoped that his PhD supervisor would be Hoyle, and he was disappointed to be assigned instead Dennis Sciama, who was still, nevertheless, a colossus in the field.
However, during the course of his doctoral studies he began to develop his theories about the universe beginning with a singularity — a point of infinite density similar to that at the centre of a black hole. This work, done with fellow physicist Roger Penrose, was in direct contradiction to Hoyle’s belief that the universe existed and had always done so in a “steady state”, without a point at which time began.
Still believing that he had little time left, Hawking proposed to Jane Wilde, whom he had met at a new year’s party before being diagnosed. Two years younger than him, she had to get a special dispensation to marry from her college, which at the time did not allow students to wed.
In the years that followed, Hawking’s health deteriorated steadily, and he came to rely more and more on his wife and colleagues. He went from needing a stick, to using crutches, to requiring a wheelchair. At the same time that he found new ways to keep mobile, he was also forced to find new ways to think. An inability to write would have felt to many fellow theoretical physicists like a career-ending matter in and of itself — this is a subject where advances come from scribbled equations on blackboards and slowly working through algebra on paper.
Hawking’s approach was to think geometrically instead, translating algebraic problems into something that could be held and manipulated in his mind.
In this way, while he declined physically, his body of work increased. Continuing the research on black holes, Hawking came to a profound realisation — they could shine. Black holes were named because they were believed to be so massive that nothing, not even light, could escape. Hawking showed that quantum mechanical effects meant that some particles would be able to leave. Called “Hawking radiation”, he pithily summed up the research, saying, “Black holes ain’t so black”.
For Hawking, finding that quantum mechanics, which affect the smallest things in the universe, could change the nature of the biggest things was doubly significant. Like Einstein before him, he was desperate to find a way of linking the subatomic world with the cosmological: to find a “theory of everything” in which quantum mechanics and general relativity were no longer in opposition. He was already a star in the scientific community, being made a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 32 and Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton, at the age of 37. Linking those two theories, though, would have been a work of such significance it would have made him one of those rare scientists who gains fame outside the community.
His public fame was to come from a different, unexpected route — a book that became an unlikely bestseller, not just because of its content, but also because of the circumstances in which it was written.
While on a trip to Geneva in 1985 he had been taken ill with pneumonia and put on a life support machine. He underwent a tracheostomy operation, and was forced to communicate using an electronic voice synthesizer operated by finger movement.
Able to produce a maximum of 15 words a minute he painstakingly finished the book, which he called A Brief History of Time, hoping it would provide a small amount of money for his family when he was gone.
An account of fundamental physics and the birth of the universe, there was no precedent in publishing to indicate that it would be a bestseller for more than four years, remain in print to this day and sell in excess of 11 million copies. Stephen Hawking the scientist had already made his name; it was this book that created Stephen Hawking the celebrity.
Almost overnight he found himself invited to parties and events around the world. His book may have ranked as one of the least well understood bestsellers — according to one set of Kindle statistics the average reader stops after scratching their head through 6.6 per cent of it — but what people did understand was the compelling idea of a great mind trapped in a weak and fallible body.
By the time of his death, Hawking had become a symbol of the power of science and a brand in his own right, even — or perhaps especially — among those who knew nothing about his research. His popular culture appearances are too numerous to list. He lent his voice for use on a Pink Floyd album, and was drawn in cartoon form for episodes of Futurama and The Simpsons. In 1993 he appeared as a hologram in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing poker with Einstein, Newton and the Star Trek character Data.
In this context it might seem strange that it took Hollywood a quarter of a century to catch up with his small-screen appeal. In 2014 the movie The Theory of Everything was released to great critical acclaim. Unlike in Hawking’s television appearances, here he was the star, played by Eddie Redmayne, rather than a walk-on. The film recounted the story of his courtship and marriage to Wilde, and did so with sufficient accuracy that when Redmayne won the best actor Oscar, Hawking congratulated him: “Well done Eddie, I’m very proud of you.”
By the time Redmayne was walking up the red carpet, though, the marriage he portrayed was long over.
After a relationship that was difficult at times, Hawking and Wilde separated in 1990. Their marriage had lasted 25 years, but eventually the pressures were too much. “The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage,” Wilde said. “Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics. If you took out motor neurone disease, you are still left with physics. Mrs Einstein, you know, cited physics as a difference for her divorce . . .”
The same year his divorce was finalised, in 1995, Hawking married Elaine Mason, his nurse. At the time, he described their relationship as “passionate and tempestuous”. Later there would be persistent accusations that she was physically abusing him — but Hawking refused to press charges, and they divorced in 2006.
Even as his academic career was winding down, Hawking’s celebrity showed no sign of being on the wane. He made international headlines when, for his 65th birthday, he travelled on a zero-gravity flight. His pronouncements on subjects as diverse as the dangers of artificial intelligence (it “could spell the end of the human race”) and alien contact (“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”) may have been outside his field but, such was his status, they were treated with a reverence and import in the popular press that occasionally annoyed other scientists.
However, none could dispute that he was, scientifically alone, a figure to match any of his contemporaries. Hawking was appointed CBE in 1982 and became a Companion of Honour in 1989. Among his other honours and awards were the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal (1976); the Albert Einstein Medal (1979); the Wolf Prize in Physics (1988); the Prince of Asturias Award (1989); the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society (1999); and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal (2006). In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States.
He was also one of the great popularisers of science. Besides A Brief History of Time (1988) Hawking wrote a number of other books, including textbooks, popular books and children’s fiction. Among his textbooks were: The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (with George Ellis, 1973); The Nature of Space and Time (with Roger Penrose, 1996); Information Loss in Black Holes (2005); and God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs That Changed History(2005). His popular books included The Universe in a Nutshell (2001) and A Briefer History of Time (with the physicist Leonard Mlodinow, 2005). His children’s books, co-written with his daughter, the author and journalist Lucy Hawking, were George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007); George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009); George and the Big Bang (2011); and George and the Unbreakable Code (2014).
One of his last books, The Grand Design, was also written with Mlodinow and published in 2010. While many of his peers would hesitate before deciding to straddle the fraught magisteria of science and religion, he had no such qualms, arguing that invoking God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe, and that the big bang is a consequence of the laws of physics alone.
Perhaps nothing better symbolised the broad cultural appeal that Hawking had attained by his death than his own 70th birthday party, in 2012. Held in Cambridge’s department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics it was marked by a conference that sought “to review the current status of the fields of black holes, cosmology and fundamental physics”.
It was not a title or a location that would generally be noted for its pulling power on the A-list party circuit. Yet alongside Nobel laureates such as Saul Perlmutter, and grandees such as Lord Rees of Ludlow, the party guests mingled with the billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson and the model Lily Cole. The symposium was covered by national and international press. One guest was notable, however, for his absence. Hawking, the organisers explained, was too ill to attend.
Yet however ominous that felt, in a man who doctors predicted should have died half a century earlier, he lived for another six years, and for most of that time managed — using just the slight twitch of his right cheek — to contribute to, discuss and maintain a role at the very centre of the cultural and scientific life of Britain.
For some, Stephen Hawking will be remembered as one of the finest British scientists of the 20th century. For many others the memory will be something else, more complicated but no less worthy: of a man who came to be defined — ironically, but inspirationally — by his very determination not to let his disease define his life.
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