Biography of Stephen Hawking, Physicist and Cosmologist

Photo Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was a world-renowned cosmologist and physicist, especially esteemed for overcoming extreme physical disability to pursue his groundbreaking scientific work. He was a best-selling author whose books made complex ideas accessible to the general public. His theories provided deep insights into the connections between quantum physics and relativity, including how those concepts might be united in explaining fundamental questions related to the development of the universe and the formation of black holes.

Fast Facts: Stephen Hawking

  • Known For: Cosmologist, physicist, best-selling science writer
  • Also Known As: Steven William Hawking
  • Born: January 8, 1942 in Oxfordshire, England
  • Parents: Frank and Isobel Hawking
  • Died: March 14, 2018 in Cambridge, England.
  • Education:  St Albans School, B.A., University College, Oxford, Ph.D., Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 1966
  • Published Works: "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes," "The Universe in a Nutshell," "On the Shoulders of Giants," "A Briefer History of Time," "The Grand Design," "My Brief History"
  • Awards and Honors:  Fellow of the Royal Society, the Eddington Medal, the Royal Society's Hughes Medal, the Albert Einstein Medal, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Wolf Prize in Physics, the Prince of Asturias Awards in Concord, the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society, the Michelson Morley Award of Case Western Reserve University, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society
  • Spouses: Jane Wilde, Elaine Mason
  • Children: Robert, Lucy, Timothy
  • Notable Quote: “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Early Life

Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxfordshire, England where his mother had been sent for safety during the German bombings of London of World War II. His mother, Isobel Hawking, was an Oxford graduate and his father, Frank Hawking, a medical researcher.

After his birth, the family reunited in London where his father headed the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research. The family then moved to St Albans, so that Stephen's father could pursue medical research at the nearby Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill.

Education and Medical Diagnosis

Stephen Hawking attended school in St Albans, where he was an unexceptional student. His brilliance was much more apparent in his years at Oxford University. He specialized in physics, and graduated with first-class honors, despite his relative lack of diligence. In 1962, he continued his education at Cambridge University, pursuing a Ph.D. in cosmology.

At age 21, a year after beginning his doctoral program, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neuron disease, ALS, and Lou Gehrig's disease). Given only three years to live, he has written that this prognosis helped motivate him in his physics work.

There is little doubt that his ability to remain actively engaged with the world through his scientific work helped him persevere in the face of the disease. The support of family and friends were equally key. This is vividly portrayed in the dramatic film "The Theory of Everything."

The ALS Progresses

As his illness progressed, Hawking became less mobile and began using a wheelchair. As part of his condition, Hawking eventually lost his ability to speak, so he utilized a device capable of translating his eye movements (since he could no longer utilize a keypad) to speak in a digitized voice.

In addition to his keen mind within physics, he gained respect throughout the world as a science communicator. His achievements are deeply impressive on their own, but some of the reason he is so universally respected was his ability to accomplish so much while suffering the severe debility caused by ALS.

Marriage and Children

Just before his diagnosis, Hawking met Jane Wilde, and the two were married in 1965. The couple had three children before separating. Hawking married Elaine Mason in 1995 and they divorced in 2006.

Hawking's Career as Academic and Author

Hawking stayed on at Cambridge after his graduation, as a research fellow and then as a professional fellow. For most of his academic career, Hawking served as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

Following a long tradition, Hawking retired from this post at age 67, in the spring of 2009, though he continued his research at the university's cosmology institute. In 2008 he also accepted a position as a visiting researcher at Waterloo, Ontario's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

In 1982 Hawking began work on a popular book on cosmology. By 1984 he had produced the first draft of "A Brief History of Time," which he published in 1988 after some medical setbacks. This book remained on the Sunday Times best-sellers list for 237 weeks. Hawking's even more accessible "A Briefer History of Time" was published in 2005.

Hawking's Fields of Study

Hawking's major research was in the areas of theoretical cosmology, focusing on the evolution of the universe as governed by the laws of general relativity. He is most well known for his work in the study of black holes. Through his work, Hawking was able to:

  • Prove that singularities are general features of spacetime.
  • Provide a mathematical proof that information which fell into a black hole was lost.
  • Demonstrate that black holes evaporate through Hawking radiation.

Death

On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking died in his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76. His ashes were placed in London’s Westminster Abbey between the final resting places of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Legacy

Stephen Hawking made large contributions as a scientist, science communicator, and as a heroic example of how enormous obstacles can be overcome. The Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication is a prestigious award which "recognizes the merit of popular science on an international level."

Thanks to his distinctive appearance, voice, and popularity, Stephen Hawking has been represented often in popular culture. He made appearances on the television shows "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," as well as having a cameo on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in 1993.

"The Theory of Everything," a biographical drama film about Hawking's life, was released in 2014.

Sources

  • “Stephen Hawking.” Famous Scientists, www.famousscientists.org/stephen-hawking/.
  • Redd, Nola Taylor. “Stephen Hawking Biography (1942-2018).” Space.com, Space, 14 Mar. 2018, www.space.com/15923-stephen-hawking.html.
  • “Stephen William Hawking.” Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Hawking.html.