The Life Of Stephen Hawking And His Influence On The World

On January 8, 1942 in Oxford, England - exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo - Stephen Hawking was born. As an English theoretical physicist, his theory of exploding black holes drew upon both relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Given the nature of his work, this led to Hawking being one of the most brilliant minds of our time. Also working with space-time singularities, his love for mathematics and the sciences began early on in his childhood. Hawking grew up in St. Albans, 20 miles south of London. As a boy Hawking was lanky and bad at sports. However, early on in his life he developed an interest in complicated games and electronics. He and other students at his primary school (St. Albans School) attempted to build a computer at the young age of sixteen. They succeeded in building a computer they named LUCE that performed complicated yet useless operations. This was the beginning of Hawking’s lifelong love affair with science and mathematics.

Hawking formally began his undergrad education at Oxford University in October of 1959. He was only seventeen. In the beginning of his academic career, he was bored and a bit lonely. He found the academic work “ridiculously easy,” and became uninterested with the majority of his studies. During his second year, Hawking began to ingratiate himself with other students and began to make an effort to make connections with other students. This is when things began to change for Hawking. He developed into a lively and popular student with many new interests- including science fiction and classical music. He soon joined groups on campus, such as University College Boat Club. He also took a keen interest in rowing and he became team captain of the rowing team. Hawking continued to excel both socially and academically. After receiving a first-class BA Honors degree in physics, Hawking began his graduate work at Cambridge in October 1962.

Hawking met his future wife, Jane Wilde in 1962 during his first year of doctorial studies. The following year, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS - also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. This motor neuron disease is a terminal illness that affects and causes the degeneration of motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord. This is what gradually paralyzed him over decades. Hawking was projected to live only two years after the diagnosis. In October 1964, the couple became engaged, aware of the potential challenges that lay ahead due to Hawking's shortened life expectancy and physical limitations. Hawking said that the engagement gave him 'something to live for.' The two married on 14 July 1965 in St Albans. This led to a very difficult first year at Cambridge. Although happily married to Jane, Hawking fell into a deep depression. Specialists and colleagues encouraged him to continue with his studies, but Hawking felt as if there was no point. His disease progressed much slower than predicted, however, and although he had trouble walking on his own and encountered problems with speech, he outlived the initial diagnosis of two years. With support and encouragement from those around him, Hawking returned to his studies and began to exceed all expectations. He then became famously known for his brilliance and grit.

When Hawking began his graduate studies, there was much debate about the creation of the universe. This led to the greatest inspiration in Hawking’s lifetime. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theory of spacetime singularity in the center of black holes, Hawking applied the same principal to the entire universe. He stated that the universe might have began as a singularity. He wrote his thesis on this topic in 1965. His thesis was later approved in 1966. Hawking obtained his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics- specializing in cosmology and general relativity in March of 1966. He then received a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge. His essay 'Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time' shared top honors with one by Penrose to win that year's Adams Prize.

Hawking published many works during his time. These works tackled fundamental questions about the universe and our existence. He also published many lectures, journals and scientific papers. His book My Brief History recounts his incredible journey- from post-war London boyhood to his years of international fame and his rise as a pop culture icon. Illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this candid and witty account of Hawking’s life introduces readers to the inquisitive boy whose classmates nicknamed ‘Einstein.” Its tales of the young jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a black hole, and the young husband and father striving to gain a foothold in the world of academia. In his book, A Brief History of Time, Hawking contemplates the grand design of the universe and its infinity. It begins by reviewing the greatest theories of the cosmos from Newton to Einstein, before delving into the secrets which still lie at the heart of space and time. From the Big Bang to black holes, via spiral galaxies and strong theory, these are some of Hawking’s greatest and most well-known publishing’s. These works of literature were read by millions and led to worldwide admiration and fame.

Giving new meaning to the term popular science, Hawking earned his rightful place in the pop culture universe by appearing in (and inspiring) various television shows, movies and music. These things- along with his publishing’s- made him a household name across the world. Not only did Hawking study the cosmos but became a star in his own right. He was revered for the leaps and bounds he made in the scientific community with his knowledge of complex subjects like the mechanics of black holes and quantum physics. Hawking also charmed audiences with on screen appearances. His biggest charm was the fact that he was so down to earth. Even as one of the greatest minds of our time, Hawking kept a humility about him that drew others near. Hawking’s trademark wit and sense of humor carried throughout his life. He once stated that, “Life would be tragic if it weren't funny.” Hawking even hilariously weighed in on the ‘cosmological effect’ of Zayn Malik leaving the band One Direction in 2015:

“Finally, a question about something important,” he said. “It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another, different universe. And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”

Hawking was also famously featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, Futurama, various talk shows and he even had a movie- The Theory of Everything- produced in his honor. Actor Eddie Redmayne went on to win an Oscar for best actor based off his portrayal of Hawking.

At the age of sixty-seven, Hawking was required to step down as Lucasian professor of Mathematics due to his progressing illness. After stepping down from his post, he took a new job at Cambridge and continued to publish leading journals and scientific articles. In 2006, Hawking expressed that one of his greatest wishes was to travel to space. Upon hearing this, Richard Branson offered Hawking a free flight into space with virgin Galactic. Hawking of course accepted. Motivated by the desire to increase public interest in space and spaceflight, Hawking offered potential to those with disabilities who felt enabled by their situations. On April 26th, 2007, Hawking flew aboard a specially modified jet operated by Zero-G Corp off the coast of Florida. That is when the professor first experienced weightlessness. Many feared that weightlessness would cause him discomfort. However, their concerns were immediately dismissed as it was a successful test. Hawking was able to withstand the ‘g-forces’ involved in space flight. At the time, Hawking's trip to space was projected to be as early as 2009, but commercial flights to space did not commence before his death.

Hawking often was found expressing his concern with the future of humanity. In 2006, Hawking posed an open question on the Internet: 'In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” He later clarified, 'I don't know the answer. That is why I asked the question, to get people to think about it, and to be aware of the dangers we now face.” He also expressed that given the vastness of the universe, aliens likely exist- but contact should be avoided. He warned that aliens might pillage Earth for resources. In 2010 he said, '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.' However, Hawking argued that we should be more frightened by capitalistic greed and economic inequality rather than aliens or robots.

On March 14th, 2018, Hawking passed in his home in Cambridge, England at the age of seventy-six. His family stated that he died peacefully, surrounded by those he loved. Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death and died on the 139th anniversary of Einstein’s birth. Hawking’s ashes were spread in the Abbey’s nave, between the graves of Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. Inscribed on his memorial stone are the words 'Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942–2018' and his most famous equation. It was later announced that Hawking's words, set to music by Greek composer Vangelis, would be beamed into space from a European space agency satellite dish. The aim of this was to reach the nearest black hole, 1A 0620-00. When asked in previous years on his belief in the afterlife, Hawking responded by stating: 'I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail…There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'

Widely regarded as one of the world’s most brilliant minds, Stephen Hawking was known throughout the world for his contributions to science, his books, his television appearances, his lectures and biographical films. He broke new ground on the basic laws which govern the universe, including the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation. This is now known as Hawking radiation. Hawking sought to explain complex scientific ideas to a wider audience through his popular books and teachings. Hawking was a unique individual who will remembered for his grit, wit and warmth all over the world. His contributions to science and humanity has left a legacy that will be carried on for generations to come. His character and story are still an inspiration to millions. Hawking will continue to be an inspiration. His legacy will live on until we reach the end of our short, yet miraculous time here on earth. 

16 August 2021
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