Stephen Hawking

Stephen William Hawking, CH CBE FRS FRSA, (born 8 January 1942) is an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. His scientific works include a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, often called Hawking radiation. Hawking was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He is a vigorous supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Hawking is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US. In 2002, Hawking was ranked number 25 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009 and has achieved commercial success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; his book A Brief History of Time appeared on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.

Hawking has a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that has gradually paralysed him over the decades. He now communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device.

School Years

Hawking began his schooling at the Byron House School in Highgate, London. He later blamed its "progressive methods" for his failure to learn to read while at the school. In St Albans, the eight-year-old Hawking attended St Albans High School for Girls for a few months. At that time, younger boys could attend one of the houses.

Hawking attended Radlett School, an independent school in the village of Radlett in Hertfordshire, for a year, and from September 1952, St Albans School, an independent school in the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire after Hawking passed the eleven-plus a year early. The family placed a high value on education. Hawking's father wanted his son to attend the well-regarded Westminster School, but the 13-year-old Hawking was ill on the day of the scholarship examination. His family could not afford the school fees without the financial aid of a scholarship, so Hawking remained at St Albans. A positive consequence was that Hawking remained with a close group of friends with whom he enjoyed board games, the manufacture of fireworks, model aeroplanes and boats, and long discussions about Christianity and extrasensory perception. From 1958 on, with the help of the mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, they built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.

Although known at school as "Einstein", Hawking was not initially successful academically. With time, he began to show considerable aptitude for scientific subjects and, inspired by Tahta, decided to read mathematics at university. Hawking's father advised him to study medicine, concerned that there were few jobs for mathematics graduates. He also wanted his son to attend University College, Oxford, his own alma mater. As it was not possible to read mathematics there at the time, Hawking decided to study physics and chemistry. Despite his headmaster's advice to wait until the next year, Hawking was awarded a scholarship after taking the examinations in March 1959.


Hawking has a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig's disease, that has gradually paralysed him over the decades.

Hawking had experienced increasing clumsiness during his final year at Oxford, including a fall on some stairs and difficulties when rowing. The problems worsened, and his speech became slightly slurred; his family noticed the changes when he returned home for Christmas, and medical investigations were begun. The diagnosis of motor neurone disease came when Hawking was 21, in 1963. At the time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years.

In the late 1960s, Hawking's physical abilities declined: he began to use crutches and ceased lecturing regularly. As he slowly lost the ability to write, he developed compensatory visual methods, including seeing equations in terms of geometry. The physicist Werner Israel later compared the achievements to Mozart composing an entire symphony in his head. Hawking was, however, fiercely independent and unwilling to accept help or make concessions for his disabilities. He preferred to be regarded as "a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person." His wife, Jane Hawking, later noted: "Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I've called it both at one time or another." He required much persuasion to accept the use of a wheelchair at the end of the 1960s, but ultimately became notorious for the wildness of his wheelchair driving. Hawking was a popular and witty colleague, but his illness, as well as his reputation for brashness, distanced him from some.

During a visit to CERN on the border of France and Switzerland in mid-1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia, which in his condition was life-threatening; he was so ill that Jane was asked if life support should be terminated. She refused, but the consequence was a tracheotomy, which would require round-the-clock nursing care and remove what remained of his speech. The National Health Service was ready to pay for a nursing home, but Jane was determined that he would live at home. The cost of the care was funded by an American foundation. Nurses were hired for the three shifts required to provide the round-the-clock support he required. One of those employed was Elaine Mason, who was to become Hawking's second wife.

For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card. But in 1986 he received a computer program called the "Equalizer" from Walter Woltosz, CEO of Words Plus, who had developed an earlier version of the software to help his mother-in-law, who also suffered from ALS and had lost her ability to speak and write. In a method he uses to this day, Hawking could now simply press a switch to select phrases, words or letters from a bank of about 2,500–3,000 that are scanned. The program was originally run on a desktop computer. However, Elaine Mason's husband, David, a computer engineer, adapted a small computer and attached it to his wheelchair. Released from the need to use somebody to interpret his speech, Hawking commented that "I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice." The voice he uses has an American accent and is no longer produced. Despite the availability of other voices, Hawking has retained this original voice, saying that he prefers it and identifies with it. At this point, Hawking activated a switch using his hand and could produce up to 15 words a minute. Lectures were prepared in advance and were sent to the speech synthesiser in short sections to be delivered.

Hawking gradually lost the use of his hand, and in 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute. With this decline there is a risk of his developing locked-in syndrome, so Hawking collaborated with Intel researchers on systems that could translate his brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations. After several prototypes that did not perform as planned, they finally settled on an adaptive word predictor made by the London-based startup SwiftKey, which used a system similar to his original technology, so Hawking could adapt to it easier than a brand new complex system, and after inputting large amounts of Hawking's papers and other written materials, developed a satisfactory system that saves time by predicting words and phrases he uses frequently, similar to typing software used on most smartphones today. By 2009 he could no longer drive his wheelchair independently, but the same people who created his new typing mechanics are working on a method to drive his chair using movements made by his chin. This has proven difficult, since Hawking cannot move his neck, and trials have shown that while he can indeed drive the chair, the movement is sporadic and jumpy. He is experiencing increased breathing difficulties, requiring a ventilator at times, and has been hospitalised several times.

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Stephen Hawking Facts