Stephen Hawking is an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge.
Let’s find out some fun facts about him!
1. Stephen William Hawking was born 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England.
2. His parents were Frank and Isobel Hawking.
3. His mother was Scottish.
4. Despite their families’ financial constraints, both parents attended the University of Oxford, where Frank read medicine and Isobel read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
5. The two met shortly after the beginning of the Second World War at a medical research institute where Isobel was working as a secretary and Frank was working as a medical researcher.
6. They lived in Highgate; but, as London was being bombed in those years, Isobel went to Oxford to give birth in greater safety.
7. Hawking has two younger sisters, Philippa and Mary, and an adopted brother, Edward.
8. In 1950, when Hawking’s father became head of the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, Hawking and his family moved to St Albans, Hertfordshire.
9. In St Albans, the family were considered highly intelligent and somewhat eccentric;] meals were often spent with each person silently reading a book.
10. They lived a frugal existence in a large, cluttered, and poorly maintained house and travelled in a converted London taxicab.
11. During one of Hawking’s father’s frequent absences working in Africa, the rest of the family spent four months in Majorca visiting his mother’s friend Beryl and her husband, the poet Robert Graves.
12. Hawking began his schooling at the Byron House School in Highgate, London. He later blamed its “progressive methods” for his failure to learn to read while at the school.
13. In St Albans, the eight-year-old Hawking attended St Albans High School for Girls for a few months. At that time, younger boys could attend one of the houses.[
14. Hawking attended Radlett School, an independent school in the village of Radlett in Hertfordshire, for a year, and from September 1952, St Albans School, an independent school in the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire.
15. The family placed a high value on education.
16. Hawking’s father wanted his son to attend the well-regarded Westminster School, but the 13-year-old Hawking was ill on the day of the scholarship examination.
17. His family could not afford the school fees without the financial aid of a scholarship, so Hawking remained at St Albans.
18. A positive consequence was that Hawking remained with a close group of friends with whom he enjoyed board games, the manufacture of fireworks, model aeroplanes and boats, and long discussions about Christianity and extrasensory perception.
19. From 1958 on, with the help of the mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, they built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.
20. Although known at school as “Einstein”, Hawking was not initially successful academically.
21. With time, he began to show considerable aptitude for scientific subjects and, inspired by Tahta, decided to read mathematics at university.
22. Hawking’s father advised him to study medicine, concerned that there were few jobs for mathematics graduates.
23. He also wanted his son to attend University College, Oxford, his own alma mater. As it was not possible to read mathematics there at the time, Hawking decided to study physics and chemistry. Despite his headmaster’s advice to wait until the next year, Hawking was awarded a scholarship after taking the examinations in March 1959.
24. Hawking began his university education at University College, Oxford in October 1959 at the age of 17.
25. For the first eighteen months, he was bored and lonely – he was younger than many of the other students, and found the academic work “ridiculously easy”. His physics tutor, Robert Berman, later said, “It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it.”
26. A change occurred during his second and third year when, according to Berman, Hawking made more of an effort “to be one of the boys”. He developed into a popular, lively and witty college member, interested in classical music and science fiction. Part of the transformation resulted from his decision to join the college boat club, the University College Boat Club, where he coxed a rowing team.
27. Hawking has estimated that he studied about a thousand hours during his three years at Oxford. These unimpressive study habits made sitting his finals a challenge, and he decided to answer only theoretical physics questions rather than those requiring factual knowledge. A first-class honours degree was a condition of acceptance for his planned graduate study in cosmology at the University of Cambridge
28. Anxious, he slept poorly the night before the examinations, and the final result was on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, making a viva (oral examination) necessary.
29. Hawking was concerned that he was viewed as a lazy and difficult student. So, when asked at the oral to describe his future plans, he said, “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.”
30. He was held in higher regard than he believed; as Berman commented, the examiners “were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves”.
31. After receiving a first-class BA (Hons.) degree in natural science and completing a trip to Iran with a friend, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in October 1962.
32. Hawking’s first year as a doctoral student was difficult. He was initially disappointed to find that he had been assigned Dennis William Sciama, one of the founders of modern cosmology, as a supervisor rather than noted astronomer Fred Hoyle, and he found his training in mathematics inadequate for work in general relativity and cosmology.
33. When Hawking began his graduate studies, there was much debate in the physics community about the prevailing theories of the creation of the universe: the Big Bang and Steady State theories.
34. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the centre of black holes, Hawking applied the same thinking to the entire universe; and, during 1965, he wrote his thesis on this topic.
35. There were other positive developments: Hawking received a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College; he obtained his PhD degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology, in March 1966; and his essay entitled “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” shared top honours with one by Penrose to win that year’s prestigious Adams Prize.
36. In his work, and in collaboration with Penrose, Hawking extended the singularity theorem concepts first explored in his doctoral thesis.
37. In 1970, Hawking postulated what became known as the second law of black hole dynamics, that the event horizon of a black hole can never get smaller.
38. Beginning in 1973, Hawking moved into the study of quantum gravity and quantum mechanics.
39. Hawking was appointed to the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1970.
40. Hawking returned to Cambridge in 1975 to a more academically senior post, as reader in gravitational physics.
41. In the late 1970s, Hawking was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.
42. One of the first messages Hawking produced with his speech-generating device was a request for his assistant to help him finish writing A Brief History of Time. Peter Guzzardi, his editor at Bantam, pushed him to explain his ideas clearly in non-technical language, a process that required many revisions from an increasingly irritated Hawking.
43. Hawking pursued his work in physics: in 1993 he co-edited a book on Euclidean quantum gravity with Gary Gibbons and published a collected edition of his own articles on black holes and the Big Bang.
44. In 1994, at Cambridge’s Newton Institute, Hawking and Penrose delivered a series of six lectures that were published in 1996 as “The Nature of Space and Time”.
45. Hawking also maintained his public profile, including bringing science to a wider audience. A film version of A Brief History of Time, directed by Errol Morris and produced by Steven Spielberg, premiered in 1992. Hawking had wanted the film to be scientific rather than biographical, but he was persuaded otherwise.
46. Hawking continued his writings for a popular audience, publishing The Universe in a Nutshell in 2001, and A Briefer History of Time, which he wrote in 2005 with Leonard Mlodinow to update his earlier works with the aim of making them accessible to a wider audience, and God Created the Integers, which appeared in 2006.
47. Hawking continued to travel widely, including trips to Chile, Easter Island, South Africa, Spain (to receive the Fonseca Prize in 2008), Canada, and numerous trips to the United States. For practical reasons related to his disability, Hawking increasingly travelled by private jet, and by 2011 that had become his only mode of international travel.
48. By 2003, consensus among physicists was growing that Hawking was wrong about the loss of information in a black hole.
49. In 2007, Hawking and his daughter Lucy published George’s Secret Key to the Universe, a children’s book designed to explain theoretical physics in an accessible fashion and featuring characters similar to those in the Hawking family. The book was followed by sequels in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
50. Several buildings have been named after him, including the Stephen W. Hawking Science Museum in San Salvador, El Salvador, the Stephen Hawking Building in Cambridge, and the Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute in Canada.
51. During his career, Hawking has supervised 39 successful PhD students.
52. On 20 July 2015, Hawking helped launch Breakthrough Initiatives, an effort to search for extraterrestrial life.
53. When Hawking was a graduate student at Cambridge, his relationship with Jane Wilde, a friend of his sister whom he had met shortly before his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, continued to develop. The couple became engaged in October 1964 – Hawking later said that the engagement gave him “something to live for” – and the two were married on 14 July 1965.
54. During their first years of marriage, Jane lived in London during the week as she completed her degree, and they travelled to the United States several times for conferences and physics-related visits.
55. The couple had difficulty finding housing that was within Hawking’s walking distance to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). Jane began a PhD programme, and a son, Robert, was born in May 1967.
56. A daughter, Lucy, was born in 1970.A third child, Timothy, was born in April 1979.
57. Hawking rarely discussed his illness and physical challenges, even – in a precedent set during their courtship – with Jane.
58. His disabilities meant that the responsibilities of home and family rested firmly on his wife’s increasingly overwhelmed shoulders, leaving him more time to think about physics.
59. Upon his appointment in 1974 to a year-long position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, Jane proposed that a graduate or post-doctoral student live with them and help with his care. Hawking accepted, and Bernard Carr travelled with them as the first of many students who fulfilled this role. The family spent a generally happy and stimulating year in Pasadena.
60. Hawking returned to Cambridge in 1975 to a new home and a new job, as reader. Don Page, with whom Hawking had begun a close friendship at Caltech, arrived to work as the live-in graduate student assistant. With Page’s help and that of a secretary, Jane’s responsibilities were reduced so she could return to her thesis and her new interest in singing.
61. By December 1977, Jane had met organist Jonathan Hellyer Jones when singing in a church choir. Hellyer Jones became close to the Hawking family, and by the mid-1980s, he and Jane had developed romantic feelings for each other.
62. According to Jane, her husband was accepting of the situation, stating “he would not object so long as I continued to love him”. Jane and Hellyer Jones determined not to break up the family, and their relationship remained platonic for a long period.
63. By the 1980s, Hawking’s marriage had been strained for many years. Jane felt overwhelmed by the intrusion into their family life of the required nurses and assistants.
64. The impact of his celebrity was challenging for colleagues and family members, while the prospect of living up to a worldwide fairytale image was daunting for the couple.
65. Hawking’s views of religion also contrasted with her strong Christian faith and resulted in tension.
66. In the late 1980s, Hawking had grown close to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, to the dismay of some colleagues, caregivers, and family members, who were disturbed by her strength of personality and protectiveness. Hawking told Jane that he was leaving her for Mason and departed the family home in February 1990. After his divorce from Jane in 1995, Hawking married Mason in September, declaring, “It’s wonderful – I have married the woman I love.”
67. In 1999, Jane Hawking published a memoir, Music to Move the Stars, describing her marriage to Hawking and its breakdown. Its revelations caused a sensation in the media, but as was his usual practice regarding his personal life, Hawking made no public comment except to say that he did not read biographies about himself.
68. After his second marriage, Hawking’s family felt excluded and marginalised from his life. For a period of about five years in the early 2000s, his family and staff became increasingly worried that he was being physically abused. Police investigations took place, but were closed as Hawking refused to make a complaint.
69. In 2006, Hawking and Mason quietly divorced, and Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane, his children, and his grandchildren. Reflecting this happier period, a revised version of Jane’s book called Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen appeared in 2007, and was made into a film, The Theory of Everything, in 2014.
70. Hawking has a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that has gradually paralysed him over the decades.
71. Hawking had experienced increasing clumsiness during his final year at Oxford, including a fall on some stairs and difficulties when rowing.
72. The problems worsened, and his speech became slightly slurred; his family noticed the changes when he returned home for Christmas, and medical investigations were begun. The diagnosis of motor neurone disease came when Hawking was 21, in 1963. At the time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years.
73. In the late 1960s, Hawking’s physical abilities declined: he began to use crutches and ceased lecturing regularly.
74. Hawking’s speech deteriorated, and by the late 1970s he could be understood by only his family and closest friends. To communicate with others, someone who knew him well would translate his speech into intelligible speech
75. For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card. But in 1986 he received a computer program called the “Equalizer” from Walter Woltosz, CEO of Words Plus, who had developed an earlier version of the software to help his mother-in-law, who also suffered from ALS and had lost her ability to speak and write.
76. Hawking gradually lost the use of his hand, and in 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute.
77. By 2009 he could no longer drive his wheelchair independently, but the same people who created his new typing mechanics are working on a method to drive his chair using movements made by his chin. This has proven difficult, since Hawking cannot move his neck, and trials have shown that while he can indeed drive the chair, the movement is sporadic and jumpy.
78. He is experiencing increased breathing difficulties, requiring a ventilator at times, and has been hospitalised several times.