Stephen Hawking death: Giant of theoretical physics who bridged the divide between science and popular culture

 In U.S.
Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, managed to transcend the divide between scientific exoticism and popular culture.

He was a giant among the select band of late-20th century theoretical physicists contemplating the origins and mysteries of the universe. But he also achieved celebrity status, known more for his motorised wheelchair and computerised voice than his esoteric theories of cosmology.

He will perhaps be remembered best as the man with the brilliant mind trapped in a broken body. Since the age of 21, Hawking had lived under the shadow of motor neurone disease, which progressively paralysed his muscles but which, unusually, did not kill him within two years of diagnosis – the usual prognosis.

Neither did his medical condition stop him from achieving personal fulfilment and professional brilliance. Against all the odds, Hawking experienced the thrills and spills of family life, with the joy of three children and the pain of two divorces. In addition, he made a series of important discoveries in his chosen field of theoretical physics and cosmology.

Despite his encroaching paralysis and the loss of his voice in 1985, Hawking managed to formulate a number of important theories concerning the properties of black holes, the expansion of the universe and what can loosely be described as deep insights into the beginning and end of time. 

On top of this, he wrote a bestselling science book, A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988. Although famed for its difficult and challenging subject matter, the book laid the foundations for Hawking’s wider appeal. This extended to cameo appearances on The Simpsons and Star Trek – the only guest to play himself (as a hologram) – as well as several lucrative television commercials.

Hawking later achieved Hollywood star-status when he was portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by actor Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything (2014), which documented the real-life drama of his life with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Redmayne was so good, Hawking said: “At times, I thought he was me.”

Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford on 8 January 1942, exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo, a coincidence he found amusing, although he later calculated that about 200,000 other babies were also born on the same day. 

Despite being born in Oxford, his father, a medical researcher, and mother were living in London’s bohemian Highgate, where Hawking was sent to the progressive Byron House School. One of his first memories was complaining to his parents that he wasn’t learning anything – an early indication of his thirst for knowledge, and low boredom threshold.

Another early memory was his boyhood fascination with model trains. “I was always very interested in how things operated and used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical enquiries,” he later recalled.

His family moved to St Albans in 1950 and, when Hawking was 11, he was sent to the private St Albans School next to the city’s cathedral where he was, by his own reckoning, an unexceptional pupil, although his classmates called him “Einstein”. Towards the end of his schooldays, Hawking had decided he wanted to study physics and mathematics. The reason, he said, was that they offered “the hope of understanding where we came from and why we were here”.

He went up to Oxford University, where he did little work as an undergraduate but still managed to scrape a first after a viva voce interview. Hawking later joked that his examiners had asked him in the interview about his plans. He said he’d stay on at Oxford if he got a second, and go to Cambridge if he got a first. “They gave me a first,” he quipped.

Although he had wanted to do a doctorate under Fred Hoyle, the eminent cosmologist who was working at Cambridge at that time, Hawking had to make do with Dennis Sciama, of whom he had never heard. Hawking later said it turned out to be a lucky break as he would inevitably have had to defend Hoyle’s “steady-state theory” of the universe rather than embrace the concept of the Big Bang – a derogatory term that Hoyle himself had coined to describe a universe that had a definite beginning.

It was around this time, in 1963, that Hawking received the devastating news that he was suffering from motor neurone disease. Towards the end of his undergraduate years, he had noticed that his coordination, which was never brilliant, was getting worse. He could no longer row a sculling boat properly and he fell over several times for no apparent reason.

During the Christmas break of 1962, he tumbled while ice-skating on a lake in St Albans and couldn’t get up again. His mother arranged for him to see a doctor and after several weeks of tests and procedures at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, he became aware that something very serious was wrong.

“They never actually told me what was wrong, but I guessed enough to know it was pretty bad, so I didn’t want to ask. In fact the doctor who diagnosed me washed his hands of me, and I never saw him again. He felt there was nothing that could be done. In effect, my father became my doctor and it was to him that I turned for advice,” Hawking later recalled on his 70th birthday.

He was only 21, and the thought of dying within a couple of years of a progressive neurological illness filled him with dread. There seemed little point in continuing with his PhD because he was not expected to complete it. Understandably, he fell into depression.

Yet something kept him going. On New Year’s Day 1963, at a party in St Albans, he had met a girl, Jane Wilde, who was then in her gap year before going up to university in London. They became engaged in 1964. There was something to live for, and he realised that to support himself and his new wife he needed a job. His spirits were lifted, aided by the realisation that his condition was progressing more slowly than expected while his PhD research was actually beginning to bear fruit. 

“After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus and I began to appreciate everything I did have. Where there is life there is hope,” he said. His dreams at the time were about grasping any opportunity that life offered.

Nasa and Stephen Hawking are working on a nano-starship that can travel 1/5th the speed of light

Hawking became immersed in one the biggest issues of cosmology in the early 1960s – whether or not the universe had a beginning. Hoyle’s steady-state universe was already in trouble, but it was effectively killed off by the 1964 discovery of microwave background radiation – the “echo” of the Big Bang that permeates all of space.

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