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Biography of Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking

Updated on April 13, 2013
Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking is a famous revolutionary physicist of our time. His research helped to change the way scientists view physics and cosmology. He has taught at many different universities in addition to doing his research. Despite an illness that has him almost completely paralyzed, he continues to provide the world with his phenomenal research and discoveries. Stephen Hawking can be compared with people like Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein.

Stephen Hawking as a child
Stephen Hawking as a child

Stephen as a Child

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 to Frank and Isobel Hawking in Oxford, England. His parents decided that his mother should give birth to Stephen at Oxford University due to the war (World War II) that was raging on, since it had been agreed that each country's universities would not be bombed.

Although both of Stephen's parents were graduates of Oxford University, they did not meet each other there. They met during the early years of the war, when both of them worked at the National Institute of Medical Research. After having Stephen, Isobel also gave birth to two girls, Mary and Philippa.

In the early 1950s, the family moved to St. Albans, a small town just north of London. When Stephen was thirteen, they adopted a younger boy named Edward. The Hawkings lived in an old house that was in desperate need of repair, however they never bothered with repairing it. Neighbors thought of them as odd and eccentric, and during dinner time, each member of the family would read a book at the dinner table rather than talk.

Frank Hawking wanted Stephen to attend a larger, more prestigious school as a child. He wanted Stephen to attend Westminister, however, he couldn't afford the tuition. Stephen was going to take an exam to earn a scholarship, however, he became ill on the day of the exam so he ended up going to St. Albans School instead. This school was associated with a local cathedral but was academically strong.

As a child, Stephen showed a huge interest in astronomy. He would spend time with his family gazing at the stars and wondering about the mysteries of the universe. Stephen and his friends also enjoyed playing board games. They started off by playing regular Monopoly, but when they grew tired of that, they modified the game to make it more advanced. Once tired of this new version of Monopoly, they began making their own board games, making them more complicated and artistic.

By the end of 1954, Stephen and his friends had outgrown board games and often talked about religion. Although Stephen had won a divinity award at school, he was not convinced of the mysteries of religion and looked at things from a more scientific perspective. His friends began to realize the depth of his intelligence and the skepticism he had about religion. Stephen became interested in ESP (extra sensory perception) for a short time until attending a lecture which discredited the field.

Stephen loved taking things apart to find out how they worked, but often had trouble putting them back together. In 1958, he and his friends built their very own computer which they called Logical Uniselector Computing Engine (LUCE). It had primitive operations, but it was still amazing that children of this age built a working computer using old clock parts and a telephone switchboard. During Stephen's last year at the school, he and his friends built another, more updated version of LUCE, however, a professor found the box one day and thought it was a pile of junk and threw it away.

At the age of 17, Stephen earned a scholarship to Oxford University to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Stephen had to take an 12½ hour examination to determine if he would qualify for the scholarship. He earned an amazing 95% on the physics part of the examination, and only scored slightly lower in the other areas of the exam.

Stephen Hawking in college
Stephen Hawking in college

The College Years

Life at Oxford University started off as very boring for Stephen. His friends did not go to Oxford so he was often very lonely. His understanding of physics was so advanced that he often did not study or do his homework, so his professors considered him as a lazy student. This did not affect his grades because during those times at Oxford, the only grades that counted toward a degree was the final exams that were given during a student's first and third year. Stephen often only did assignments that he absolutely had to, but he still was a top student in his class.

His social life changed during his second year at Oxford. He joined Oxford's rowing team. The rowing team was considered a big deal at the university, much like modern day college football. Although oarsmen of the rowing team were usually very muscular, the coxswain (the person who sits in the front and steers the boat) had to be small person who wouldn't weigh the boat down. This was perfectly suited to Stephen's small, skinny size. He quickly became good friends with his teammates and often went out partying and drinking with them. One of the team members was a fellow physics student named Gordon Berry. He and Stephen would often skip out on their lab work to attend rowing practice, however, they still kept up with their grades and work.

During final exams, Stephen was not confident about his performance. The finals lasted for four days, and at the end of each day Stephen and the other physics students (there were only four physics students, including Stephen) would get together just to socialize. There were four levels of degrees that a student could earn from Oxford. Stephen wanted to do doctoral studies at Cambridge, but in order to do so he needed to earn the highest level degree from Oxford, the First Class degree. After exams, he found out that he was on the border of earning a First Class degree and a Second Class degree and would need to attend an interview in order to determine which degree he would receive. His interview was a success as most of the review members could see that Stephen was much more intelligent than they were. He was awarded a First Class degree from Oxford and went on to Cambridge to study cosmology.

Once at Cambridge, Stephen did not easily adapt. His bad study habits came back to haunt him and he realized that he had not studied mathematics as much as he should have at Oxford. He also noticed that his health, which he had been ignoring at Oxford, was getting worse. Once, during his third year at Oxford, he fell down a flight of stairs, bumped his head, and lost his memory for about two hours. During the end of 1962 when he went home for a visit in St. Albans, his friends and family noticed the troubles that he had with his hands. He was very clumsy, often not even being able to pour a glass of wine without spilling most of it. His visit wasn't all bad, however. He met a young lady named Jane Wilde. She had just finished St. Albans School and she and Stephen became very close.

One day while ice-skating with his mother, he fell and was not able to stand back up. His family insisted that he go see a doctor. Doctors performed many tests on Stephen and gave him the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known in the United States as Lou Gehrig disease. The doctors told Stephen that he only had two years to live. Stephen became depressed and thought it was pointless to continue his studies at Cambridge. However, he didn't wallow in self pity because he remembered a boy that was in a bed next to him in the hospital. The boy had died of leukemia and Stephen decided that his disease wasn't the worse disease in the world because at least his didn't cause him pain or make him feel sick. Stephen still had three years left of his doctoral studies and his father tried to convince Dennis Sciama to allow Stephen to complete his studies early since he would not live long enough to complete the three years. Sciama declined Frank's requests. Around this time, Stephen started having dreams, giving him hope about his last few years. His relationship with Jane was also going well so Stephen decided to do something good with the time he had left. It was then that Stephen decided to get serious about his work.

Stephen spent the next few years at Cambridge establishing himself as a prominent physicist in the scientific community. For his dissertation, he teamed up with mathematical genius Roger Penrose and did ground breaking research on singularities. Examiners at Cambridge approved his dissertation and at the age of 23, he became Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde

Life After College

Stephen married Jane in 1965 although the couple knew that Stephen could die at any moment. They were determined to make the best of their remaining time together. Stephen was offered a fellowship at Caius College at Cambridge. By then, he could only walk with the aid of a cane and needed to live as close as possible to the department that he worked in, so he and Jane found a house that was less than 100 yards away. A few months later they moved to another house down the street and stayed there for many years. They often threw dinner parties and were very sociable amongst the physics community. In 1967, their first child, Robert was born. They had their second child, a girl who they named Lucy, in 1970. Then nine years later, their third child, another boy that they named Timothy joined their family. Jane became increasingly frustrated with having to care for three children and a disabled husband. She was not able to focus on her own career. Stephen's disease had stabilized, but his body was still deteriorating. By 1970, he was forced to use a wheelchair. Despite his health problems, his career continued to be successful.

Hawking spent the next few years of his life studying black holes. He made significant contributions to research of black holes, and because of his thorough understanding of black holes, he began to be in demand by the media. He guest starred on television shows and had articles written about him. He became famous for Hawking radiation, which was his discovery that black holes actually emit radiation and have a temperature (it was thought that nothing could escape black holes and they have a temperature of zero).

As Hawking's career flourished, his health continued to decline. By the mid-70's he was unable to feed himself and needed help getting in and out of bed. The Hawking family moved to a larger apartment with more space so that Stephen could move his wheelchair around more easily. He switched to an electric wheelchair which improved his mobility. He began having trouble speaking or using his facial muscles, so he started expressing himself using his wheelchair. Jane needed help with caring for Stephen and the children, so they began offering free room and board to research assistants who would be willing to babysit and help around the house. Even with the domestic responsibilities, this became a much sought after position for many students.

In 1979 Cambridge University selected Stephen Hawking to be the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. This was a highly coveted position that only a few people have ever had the opportunity to fill. Isaac Newton was one of the people who'd achieved this accomplishment in 1669.

Hawking was convinced that scientist would uncover the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Discovering a unified theory--one in which physicists would have to reconcile the four fundamental forces of physics (electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force), would possibly mean the end of theoretical physics, however there would still be much work to do. This concept became known as The Theory of Everything, and, if scientists discovered this, as Hawking wrote in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, "Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we can find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God."

Financial Troubles and Disaster

Stephen Hawking continued his scientific career, sometimes disagreeing with other scientists about different theories. He continued to amaze the scientific community and to provide valuable research that was important the to advancement of cosmology. His wife Jane had been able to go back to school and finish her doctoral degree. She took a job teaching and the extra income allowed them to be able to afford in home nurses. However, this financial balance was short lived. As their children grew older, and their first child, Robert went to college, their financial needs increased. Stephen became concerned, realizing that they would need more money once all of their children went to college. He also began to worry about his families future after his death because he was never able to get life insurance since he had been predicted to die about 20 years earlier. In 1982, Stephen decided to write a book that could be mass marketed to average people instead of just the scientific community. The first draft of his book was turned down because editors felt it was too technical. Stephen revised the draft, but it was still turned down for being too technical and having too many equations. Stephen, who had been submersed in mathematics all of his life, had trouble simplifying the book. Eventually Stephen's book was close to being ready to be published in 1985 through Bantam Publishing, with the help of literary agent Paul Guzzardi.

Before his book could be published in 1985, a health disaster struck Stephen. While his wife was on vacation in Germany, Stephen, who was in Switzerland at the time, was admitted to the hospital because his windpipe was blocked and he had pneumonia. Doctors tracked down his wife and told her that Stephen would need surgery to survive. They would have to tracheostomy, an operation that involved cutting open Stephen's windpipe and implanting a breathing device. Although Stephen's speech had been difficult to understand, he was able to still make verbal communication. However, implanting the breathing device would completely disable him from being able to verbally communicate ever again. It was a hard decision that Jane had to make, but she decided it would be better for him to live rather than die. After the surgery, Hawking had no real way to communicate with people. Eventually someone discovered a device that had plastic cut-out letters. They would look through a small hole as Stephen looked at the device, determine which letter he was looking at, and if it was the correct letter, he would indicate this by raising his eyebrows.

Once back at home, Stephen required 24 hour nurse care. His family did not want to put him in a nursing home for fear that it may make his physical health decline faster, but having a 24 hour nurse was expensive. Jane wrote many letters to charitable organizations, eventually illiciting enough financial help to pay for the medical costs.

Walt Woltosz, a computer expert from California, sent Stephen a copy of his program called the Equalizer. This program would allow Stephen to use a controller to click words from a series of menus, and one he had a couple sentences formed, the program would audibly state the sentences. He also had the choice of having the sentences communicated via telephone or saved to a hard disk so he could write his own papers. If Stephen became unable to use his hands to click the switch, he would be able to do so with the nod of his head or the blink of his eye. Although Stephen was slow to warm up to the computer program, he eventually grew on it and got better at using it because it gave him his voice back. He didn't like the fact that the program had an American accent, he'd much rather have had a British one, but that was minor compared to the freedom the program had given him from his disease.

Stephen could finally get back to work on his book. His book was finally published in April of 1988. The book was very successful, climbing to the best-seller list and eventually reaching number one. By summer, the book had already sold half a million copies in the United States. The book had similar success in England. By 1992, the book had sold over 5.5 million copies worldwide and had been translated into about 30 different languages. His book even garnered a movie deal from an American named Gordon Freedman.

Family and Personal Problems, Future Success

Stephen's career continued to gain more and more success. However, his personal life hit a hurdle in 1990, he and Jane separated. Jane had always been a very religious person. She felt that Stephen, through his research, was trying to eliminate the need for God. She also felt isolated and alone as Stephen was always earning awards and attention while she was left in the background.

In 1991, one day while trying to cross the road at full speed in his wheelchair, he was hit by an oncoming car. He broke his arm, damaged his wheelchair and his computer. However he returned to work two days later.

Stephen Hawking has always been a man to overcome disastrous obstacles in his life. Many people feel that if he had not become ill, he would not have become the phenomenal physicist that he is. Stephen Hawking is still going strong in the scientific community. Although his Theory of Everything was not proven by the time he had predicted, he still continues to work toward it. His ultimate goal: to understand everything about the universe.

Stephen Hawking Interview, 2008


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