Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Stephen William Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA 8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018
A world renowned physicist who overcame the physical incapacities of genetic roulette with a life defined by a voyage that expanded our understanding of the universe around us.
Hawking was born in 1942 in Oxford to frank and Isobel Hawking, who had both studied at Oxford. He had two younger sisters and an adopted brother. His family were often viewed as eccentric and highly intelligent. Stories abound of family meals carried out in silence as they each read books, their untidy house and a London taxi cab for a family car.
It should come as no surprise that the Hawking family considered education to be of great importance and Hawking’s father was keen for him to attend the prodigious Westminster School. The family could not afford to send him there without a scholarship but unfortunately Stephen was ill on the day of the examination and so remained at his school in St. Albans. This could well have turned out to be of major significance in his life as he remained with a close group of friends who constructed a computer together with their Maths teacher.
Hawking developed a reputation for excellence in the sciences and Maths at school but his father was keen for him to study medicine rather than Maths and to attend Oxford. It was no possible to study Maths at Oxford at the time so he opted for Physics and Chemistry and gained a Scholarship place.
Hawking managed to gain the first he required to study his post graduate at Cambridge, despite his reputation, he was a lazy student, but by his own admission, he found the course to be not particularly challenging. His post graduate studies were initially more complicated. He found his Maths training insufficient for general relativity and cosmology. This was compounded by the diagnosis of motor neuron disease which left him unenthused with study and with an expectation that he may only live another two years. His tutor encouraged him to return to his studies and his condition deteriorated slower than first feared. He returned to his studies and wrote his thesis on the application of Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in black holes to the entire universe. His ambition being to settle the debate between the theories on the beginning of the universe.
His brilliant mind was responsible for many leaps in human knowledge. He postulated Black Holes could only increase in size, that they could not split, even upon collision. He went on to prove that like Black holes, the Universe could only expand, furthermore, with increasing entropy. His work led to a form of preliminary unification of Quantum Theory and General Relativity. This led to further work on what became known as Hawking Radiation, a loss of energy that actually demonstrated a way in which Black Holes could shrink after all.
Hawking was a controversial and bold thinker. He was not above admitting where he was wrong and used such occasions to adapt and improve his own understanding. He enjoy playful bets with other scientists and often carried out academic debates in a very public manner.
Hawking would go on to write 15 books, but the title that is most well known is "A brief History of Time". Published in 1988 it made him a household name, The short volume was written to explain cosmology and the Universe for the general population.
His work as a physicist seems to have been eclipsed by his reputation as an icon. In later years his pronouncements have been lapped up by commentators and reporters, His mystic was further cemented with his frequent appearances on various popular TV shows.
Contracting pneumonia in Switzerland 1985 led to an emergency tracheotomy and spelt an end to his own speech and left him reliant on the computer generated voice he became so well known for. It seemed to have the effect of slowing the progress of his disease to a near halt as well. His home was over run with nursing staff and he and his wife drifted apart. In 1995 they divorced and he married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses the same year. That relationship also came to an end and they divorced in 2007.
Hawking could be enigmatic and autocratic in his work, but warm, jocular and playful with friends and students. His physical incapacity was often considered a catalyst for the spectacular abilities of his mind. Roger Penrose, his collaborator and friend likened this belief to the Delphi Oracle, blinded and able to see the future. A true case of mind over matter.