British Science Week: Heroes of Science – Stephen Hawking

Pioneering theories across both physics and astronomy, Hawking is one of the most acclaimed astrophysicists of all time

On 8 January 1942 Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford, England, but moved to London with his family after World War II. His mother was one of the first women to study at Oxford University in the Thirties, while his father was an important medical researcher. Like many other respected physicists – notably Albert Einstein – Hawking did not particularly excel when he was at school. Despite being clearly bright he was frequently one of the underachievers in his class, preferring instead to focus his pursuits outside the classroom on his own personal projects.

British Science Week: Heroes of Science - Stephen Hawking
Hawking speaks via a voice program controlled by his right cheek

Throughout his life Hawking’s research has been dominated by cosmology, specifically the universe and black holes, although his arrival at this subject was not direct. He had originally wished to study mathematics but instead enrolled in Physics at Oxford University as a mathematics course was not available, and later undertook a PhD in Cosmology at Cambridge University, despite (by his own account) spending little more than an hour a day on his studies. In his early-twenties Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disease that would confine him to a wheelchair and severely restrict his movement in later life, to the point that today he can move only his eyes and one cheek. However, his condition has failed to quell his research, and his importance within the scientific community is still readily apparent.
After finishing his PhD at Cambridge Hawking began working on a theory with friend and colleague Roger Penrose to investigate the supposed appearance of singularities in space-time based on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This led to Hawking’s assertion that immediately after the Big Bang the universe was full of tiny black holes. In 1974 he proposed that black holes eject information and material as a form of radiation, known today as Bekenstein-Hawking Radiation, Jacob Bekenstein being an Israeli theoretical physicist with whom Hawking collaborated on the theory. Soon after he began conducting lectures at Caltech, in Pasadena, California, and Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, England.
By this point Hawking had had three children with his now ex-wife, Jane Wilde, whom he married in 1965. Robert Hawking was born in 1968, followed by Lucy (1969) and Timothy (1979). In 1985 Hawking was diagnosed with pneumonia and, following a tracheotomy operation, he completely lost his speech, and soon after he lost the ability to care for himself, requiring 24-hour nursing. A Californian computer programmer, David Mason, heard of Hawking’s plight and presented him with a speaking program that could be controlled by head or eye movements alone, enabling Hawking to select words on a screen to piece together sentences, paragraphs or even entire lectures. Indeed, Hawking continues to write books, publish papers and give lectures. His book A Brief History Of Time, (1988) shot to the top of bestsellers’ lists worldwide and stayed there for many years, with 25 million copies sold around the globe to date. Hawking released more accessible books in 2001 and 2005: The Universe In A Nutshell And A Briefer History Of Time, respectively. With his daughter Lucy he has written children’s books too, George And The Big Bang being the latest.

PIA01884 Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech
Black holes have played a pivotal role throughout Hawking’s research career

Hawking has been the recipient of countless accolades throughout his life. His 14 honours include the Albert Einstein Medal (1979), the Order of the British Empire (1982) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009). He has declined knighthood from the Queen of England as he dislikes the concept. Today Hawking holds the position of director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge University.
Much of Hawking’s research has revolved around the basic laws that govern the universe. His has postulated that the universe began as a ‘big bang’ and will end with black holes, and his co-discovery of Bekenstein-Hawking Radiation emitted by black holes is a consequence of his theory that cosmology and quantum theory are inherently linked. His more recent research suggests that there is no edge of the universe and that the birth of the universe was determined entirely by the laws of science, outlined in his title The Grand Design (2010). He has presented a number of popular television shows, including Into The Universe (2010) in which he posits that, if aliens do exist, humanity should avoid contact with them at all costs lest they decide to conquer our planet. He has also proposed a number of theories regarding time travel and wormholes, and believes it is possible that a theoretical spacecraft flying in orbit around a black hole would be able to travel forward in time.
Hawking’s fascination with space has seen him retain a desire to visit the cosmos himself. In 2007, at 65 years of age, Hawking rode aboard a zero-gravity Boeing 727, which enabled passengers to experience weightlessness by freefalling from the sky, and he later reiterated his ambition to explore space himself. “The zero-g part was wonderful and the higher-g part was no problem,” Hawking said after the experience. “I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come!” His next foray into the cosmos will be aboard Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic vehicle in 2013.

The big idea: Black holes

Throughout Hawking’s career, black holes have been a key area of his research. In 1976 he proposed that all information within a black hole disappears but, almost 30 years later, he recanted his previous theory and instead suggested that black holes may allow information to escape in jets.

Five facts about Stephen Hawking

Eccentricity

Hawking’s family were often described as eccentric, with dinner frequently seeing the family eating in silence while reading books. The family car was a London taxi and his parents also made fireworks in their greenhouse.

Active

Before he developed the disease that would paralyse him Hawking was very active. He had a passion for dancing and was a member of Oxford University’s rowing team.

Celebrity

He has played himself in a variety of TV shows including The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and others.

Unproven theories

He is adamant time travel is possible, believes there is a single unifying theory for cosmology and quantum mechanics, and hopes we’ll one day colonise other planets.

The Grand Design

His latest academic book, The Grand Design, outlines his belief that God could be compatible with modern science but that the Big Bang must have been the consequence of the laws of physics.

Read about these other amazing heroes of science

Issac Newton

Marie Curie

Rosalind Franklin