Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England, is an English theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose scientific books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Stephen Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 to Dr. Frank Hawking, a research biologist, and Isobel Hawking. He had two younger sisters, Philippa and Mary, and an adopted brother, Edward. Though Hawking’s parents were living in North London, they moved to Oxford while his mother was pregnant with Stephen, desiring a safer location for the birth of their first child. (London was under attack at the time by the Luftwaffe.) According to Hawking, a German V-2 missile struck only a few streets away.
After Hawking was born, the family moved back to London, where his father headed the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research. In 1950, Hawking and his family moved to St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he attended St Albans High School for Girls from 1950 to 1953. (At that time, boys could attend the Girls’ school until the age of ten.) From the age of eleven, he attended St Albans School, where he was a good, but not exceptional, student. When asked later to name a teacher who had inspired him, Hawking named his mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta. He maintains his connection with the school, giving his name to one of the four houses and to an extracurricular science lecture series. He has visited it to deliver one of the lectures and has also granted a lengthy interview to pupils working on the school magazine, The Albanian.
Hawking was always interested in science. Inspired by his mathematics teacher, he originally wanted to study the subject at university. However, Hawking’s father wanted him to apply to University College, Oxford, where his father had attended. As University College did not have a mathematics fellow at that time, it would not accept applications from students who wished to read that discipline. Hawking therefore applied to read natural sciences, in which he gained a scholarship. Once at University College, Hawking specialised in physics. His interests during this time were in thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum mechanics.
After receiving his B.A. degree at Oxford in 1962, he stayed to study astronomy. He decided to leave when he found that studying sunspots, which was all the observatory was equipped for, did not appeal to him and that he was more interested in theory than in observation. He left Oxford for Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he engaged in the study of theoretical astronomy and cosmology.
Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for thirty years, taking up the post in 1979 and retiring on 1 October 2009. He is also a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and a Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. He is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; these include the runaway best seller A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestsellers list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.
Hawking’s key scientific works to date have included providing, with Roger Penrose, theorems regarding gravitational singularities in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes should emit radiation, which is today known as Hawking radiation (or sometimes as Bekenstein–Hawking radiation).
Hawking has a neuro-muscular dystrophy that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralysed.
Almost as soon as he arrived at Cambridge, he started developing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, known colloquially in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a type of motor neurone disease which would cost him almost all neuromuscular control. During his first two years at Cambridge, he did not distinguish himself, but, after the disease had stabilised and with the help of his doctoral tutor, Dennis William Sciama, he returned to working on his Ph.D.
Hawking was elected as one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society in 1974, was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982, and became a Companion of Honour in 1989. Hawking is a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
In 1974, he accepted the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to work with his friend, Kip Thorne, who was a faculty member there. He continues to have ties with Caltech, spending a month each year there after 1992.
Hawking’s achievements were made despite the increasing paralysis caused by the ALS. By 1974, he was unable to feed himself or get out of bed. His speech became slurred so that he could be understood only by people who knew him well. In 1985, he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy, which made him unable to speak at all. A Cambridge scientist built a device that enables Hawking to write onto a computer with small movements of his body, and then have a voice synthesizer speak what he has typed.
Hawking revealed that he did not see much point in obtaining a doctorate if he were to die soon. Hawking later said that the real turning point was his 1965 marriage to Jane Wilde, a language student. After gaining his Ph.D. at Trinity Hall, Stephen became first a Research Fellow, and later on a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College.
Jane Hawking, Hawking’s first wife, cared for him until 1991 when the couple separated, reportedly because of the pressures of fame and his increasing disability. They had three children: Robert (b. 1967), Lucy (b. 1969), and Timothy (b. 1979). Hawking then married his nurse, Elaine Mason (who was previously married to David Mason, the designer of the first version of Hawking’s talking computer), in 1995. In October 2006, Hawking filed for divorce from his second wife amid claims by former nurses that she had abused him.
In 1999, Jane Hawking published a memoir, Music to Move the Stars, detailing her own long-term relationship with a family friend whom she later married. Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, is a novelist. Their oldest son, Robert, emigrated to the United States, married, and has one child, George Edward Hawking. Reportedly, Hawking and his first family were reconciled in 2007.
Hawking was asked about his IQ in a 2004 newspaper interview, and replied, “I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.”
In his early work, Hawking spoke of “God” in a metaphorical sense, such as in A Brief History of Time: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.” In the same book he suggested the existence of God was unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe. His 2010 book The Grand Design and interviews with the Telegraph and the Channel 4 documentary Genius of Britain, clarify that he does “not believe in a personal God”. Hawking writes, “The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second.” He adds, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
His ex-wife, Jane said during their divorce proceedings that he was an atheist. Hawking has stated that he is “not religious in the normal sense” and he believes that “the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” Hawking compared religion and science in 2010, saying: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”