The name Steven Hawking is synonymous with precise information and an ability to communicate despite a profound handicap. It is this spirit of scientific curiosity and indomitable will to share his knowledge with others that have made him not only a respected teacher but also a cultural icon.
Hawking’s Early Years
Born during World War II on January 8, 1942, Steven Hawking was the first child of Oxford professor Frank Hawking and Isobel Hawking, one of the first women to be admitted to Oxford. The family was mentally curious and involved in many activities including keeping bees and making fireworks. Meals were often taken in silence with noses pressed into books. Considered a bit eccentric, the family used a London taxi as the family car and never quite got around to fixing up the 3-story house they owned. Steven also had a sister, Mary, and an adopted brother named Edward.
As a youngster, Steven had an uneven record as a student, but as he matured, he began to focus his attention on mathematics, though his father hoped he would go into medicine. At age 16, Hawking and his chums built a computer out of recycled parts to do fundamental mathematical equations. A year later, he entered Oxford to study physics and cosmology. He graduated in 1962 and transferred to Cambridge University to study for his Ph.D. in cosmology.
Hawking Battles Illness
At Cambridge, Hawking began to notice that some earlier symptoms he had with stumbling and slurred speech had worsened. A series of tests confirmed that he had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a severe neurological disorder that would progressively shut down the nerves that controlled the muscles of his body. He was given 2-1/2 years to live. Hawking resolved to fight the disease, and in 1965, he married his fiancée, Jane Wilde. Over the next few years, the couple had 3 children, Robert, Lucy, and Timothy.
Career in Science
Despite his illness, Hawking devoted himself to his study and research. He was inspired by the work of cosmologist Roger Penrose, who brought to light new information about the creation of black holes. He became a member of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge and authored his first book, The Large Scale Structure of Space, in 1975. Hawking became a celebrity with his demonstration that matter could escape the gravitational force of collapsed stars in the form of radiation. He was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1975. He was also a recipient of the Albert Einstein Award and received the Pius XI Gold Medal for Science from Pope Paul VI. He took a teaching position at Caltech and eventually returned to Cambridge to accept a prestigious position.
The Rise to Media Prominence
Though his physical condition continued to deteriorate, Hawking continued to work. In 1985, he lost his voice, but a California computer programmer came to his assistance with a device that allowed Hawking to choose words on a screen that were then vocalized through a speech synthesizer. Thus began the “computerized voice” that became the Steven Hawking trademark. In 1989, Hawking published A Brief History of Time, which again brought him to world prominence as a best-selling author. His writing and research show the relentless search for the “unifying theory” in science that can combine cosmology with quantum mechanics.
Hawking As Cultural Icon
Despite his illness, Steven Hawking has entered the popular zeitgeist as a dedicated scientist and a renowned teacher and writer. He has made appearances on popular TV shows like The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He also did a recorded voice-over on Pink Floyd’s song, Keep Talking.
Hawking’s Personal Life
Hawking divorced his wife, Jane, in 1999. He then married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason. Though there was some concern about abuse of Hawking, nothing was ever proven. Hawking divorced Elaine in 2006. Though Hawking’s failing health continues to be a concern, he continues his interest in space and space tourism. He died at age 76, on March 14th, 2018.