The Unknown Side of Stephen Hawking – Biography

The Unknown Side of Stephen Hawking: Stephen Hawking was born exactly 300 years after the death of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Although this wasn’t a man who believed in predestination. He was born in Oxford, England on January 8, 1942, to well-educated parents.

Isobel Eileen Hawking earned her way to the University of Oxford at a time when few women got a degree. She studied economics, philosophy, and politics and later worked as a medical research secretary.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

Frank Hawking also went to Oxford and studied medicine, specializing in tropical diseases. Frank’s research took them to London but when Isobel became pregnant with Stephen, she left the capital for Oxford to seek a safer place.

London was still reeling from the aftermath of the Blitz in 1941. After the birth of Stephen, two sisters followed Philippa and Mary as well as an adopted brother, Edward.

Stephen began his education in Highgate, a suburb of London, at the Byron House School, a very progressive school. Hawking said the teachers didn’t believe in drilling things into the students and he blamed this on his inability to read until he was eight years old.

When he was eight, the family moved north of London, to St Albans, Hertfordshire, when Frank became head of the Department of Parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research.

He wanted Stephen to go into medicine as well, but his son was already enamored by the stars and spent much of his time looking at the sky and beyond. The Hawkings was eccentric. Instead of chatting while having dinner, they each sat silently reading a book.

They lived in a large, messy house and kept bees in the basement. And they traveled around in an old London taxi. Stephen’s family placed a high value on education.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

When he was 13, his father wanted him to get into the highly regarded Westminster School, immediately next to Westminster Abbey. But Stephen fell ill and didn’t sit for a scholarship exam. Without it, they couldn’t afford the school fees. So he remained as a student at St Alban’s School.

And perhaps that was a good thing. It was at St Alban’s that he met an inspirational teacher, Dikran Tahta. Hawking said Tahta opened his eyes to the blueprint of the universe: mathematics.

Together, they built Hawking’s first computer from old clock parts and a telephone switchboard. Hawking would say: “Behind every exceptional person, there is an exceptional teacher.”

He originally wanted to study mathematics at university but his father was worried that there weren’t many jobs for math grads. Stephen would win a scholarship to study physics at Oxford.

For his first 18 months as a university student, he was bored and found the work ridiculously easy. He was also lonely and didn’t have much of a social life That changed when he decided to join his college’s boat club. His loud voice and lightweight made him the perfect coxswain – the person in charge of the boat.

A fellow boatman remarked that he often seemed like he had “…his head in the stars, working out mathematical formulae.” But he didn’t put a lot of effort into his studies. He said he spent only an hour a day on average working during his entire time at Oxford.

That made exams difficult and it nearly jeopardized a first-class degree which he needed to get admitted to the University of Cambridge for postgraduate studies. His results were on the border between first and second-class honors so he had to take an oral exam.

During the oral, he was asked to describe his plans. He responded: “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.”

Hawking received a first-class Bachelor’s degree in physics in 1962 and began grad work at Cambridge in cosmology, the study of the universe. He was disappointed to find he had been assigned physicist Dennis Sciama as his supervisor rather than the more famous astronomer Fred Hoyle.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hoyle was rarely at the department while Sciama was always eager to talk which helped stimulate Hawking’s own scientific vision.

Hoyle was also not a fan of the Big Bang theory – the theory that the universe had a beginning when it exploded with unimaginable force. He was the one who coined the term ‘big bang’ to poke fun at the theory.

On the other hand, Sciama was happy for Hawking to investigate the beginning of time. But before he could delve deeply into his research, he received devastating news. He noticed he had been getting increasingly clumsy during his time at Oxford. He fell down some stairs and the only suggestion the doctor had was that he lay off the beer.

However, in 1963, while at Cambridge, Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS which gradually paralyzes a person as the brain can no longer control the muscles.

Doctors gave him two years to live. He was just 21 years old. Hawking became deeply depressed. He felt there was no point in continuing his studies. He wrote in his memoir: “I felt it was very unfair — why should this happen to me?

At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had.” However, the disease progressed slower than expected. Sciama encouraged Hawking to return to his research.

Hawking’s greatest work revolutionized how we think about black holes: a perfectly circular region of space that’s formed when a star collapses at the end of its life cycle. Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity had predicted black holes.

The theory explains how gravity distorts spacetime. The gravitational pull of a black hole is so strong that nothing can escape it, not even light. And it warps the surroundings like a carnival mirror.

Einstein wasn’t entirely convinced that these mysterious monsters existed. The work of British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose proved general relativity really does lead to the formation of black holes. And for that, he won a Nobel Prize, in 2020.

Hawking became obsessed with black holes. And made a number of important discoveries about them including that they’re not entirely black. He discovered that they emit light just outside the event horizon – which is the boundary between normal space and the space affected by the black hole’s gravity where nothing can escape.

He believed the slow leak of what’s now known as Hawking radiation would cause the black hole to evaporate over time. He had a knack for making bets about black holes, too.

He and physicist Kip Thorne teamed up to bet that black holes swallow information, losing it forever, while physicist John Preskill thought that was nonsense and believed this information would be recovered through the radiation.

This puzzle remains unresolved but Hawking conceded the bet and as a concession gift, gave Preskill an encyclopedia of his choice: one on baseball. Hawking used his research on black holes to answer a bigger question: where did our universe originate?

He took inspiration from Penrose’s work which showed that deep inside a black hole, a singularity exists. Where all conceptions of space and time break down. Hawking applied the same thinking to the universe: it also began in a singularity, adding credence to the big bang theory that the universe began at a single point in time.

But that doesn’t mean he believed there was a creator behind it all. He wrote: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Blue touch paper is a reference to fireworks. That’s a different outlook than the father of the Big Bang theory, who felt the law of gravity was created by a creator.

Hawking was known to muse about God’s existence, once telling Reuters: “The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” (Reuters 2007) However, in the end, he was an atheist, although he did fall in love with a Christian.

Stephen met Jane Wilde at a party in their hometown of St Albans. He, a physics student at Cambridge, she, an English student at the University of London. They met around the time of his health prognosis.

Hawking said Jane gave him something to live for. They got married in 1965 and thought they didn’t have a lot of time together. Turns out, they would be married for 30 years and have 3 children.

His health problems were a constant strain on their marriage. Jane said she sought strength from her faith as Stephen’s illness worsened and she became his caregiver: feeding him, dressing him, bathing him, being by his side through his many hospital visits. But she also once said their marriage was strained for another reason.

She remarked: “The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage. Stephen and me, motor neuron disease and physics.” She remarked: “The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage. Stephen and me, motor neuron disease and physics.”

She felt shut out of his scientific world where his work didn’t slow down despite his physical decline. When he lost his ability to write, he developed unique ways of thinking. He had to rely on doing complicated equations in his head.

A physicist compared this to Mozart composing an entire symphony in his mind! Although the cruel disease robbed him of his ability to move and slurred his speech, his intellect remained sharp.

He was elected to the Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy, at the age of 32. And in 1979, he rose to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – the most famous academic chair in the world – once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

He would give lectures and speeches with the help of a computer-generated voice. He opted not to change his voice to a more natural-sounding one later on because this had already become his trademark.

He didn’t actually lose his ability to speak entirely until 1985 when he caught pneumonia while on a trip to a research center in Switzerland. He was so ill he had to be put on life support.

When doctors asked his wife if they should remove his ventilator, Jane refused. They had to cut a hole in his neck and place a tube in his windpipe to help him breathe. The tracheotomy removed what was left of his speech.

In order to communicate, he chose letters on a spelling card by raising his eyebrows. Later, he received a computer program from American engineer Walter Woltosz (wall-toesszz), whose mother suffered from ALS.

Hawking could choose words from the database with a click. But then he lost control of his hand and had to resort to twitching his cheek muscle to select the letters. This was painfully slow, and he could only manage a word or two a minute. So he reached out to Intel for help.

Researchers worked on a state-of-the-art system that would interpret his intentions, kind of like the iPhone’s predictive text feature. Intel worked with London startup SwiftKey on a word predictor which analyzed Hawking’s papers to get a better idea of his writing habits.

For example, when he selected the word ‘black’ it automatically predicted that ‘hole’ would follow. It was thanks to technology that Hawking could put his ground-breaking research into book form.

He published his best-known work in 1988. A Brief History of Time sold a million copies in just the first year – remarkable for a book about science – although many readers didn’t finish it.

It was very dense, even after Hawking omitted all equations except one in order to appeal to the masses. He only left in Einstein’s iconic e = mc2. Hawking was already well-known before the book’s release but became a celebrity afterward. He appeared on the Simpsons, the Big Bang theory, and Star Trek.

He became a “cult-like” figure who also had a mischievous streak. He was rumored to use his wheelchair to run over the toes of people who annoyed him. Prince Charles was apparently a victim.

His fame also put both his professional and personal life in the spotlight. Hawking ended up leaving Jane for one of the nurses who cared for him, Elaine Mason. Mason’s husband was the engineer who attached Hawking’s speech synthesizer to his wheelchair.

Hawking said he grew more and more unhappy at the relationship between Jane and Jonathan Jones, an organist at the local church, who actually moved in with the Hawkings, when Stephen was expected to die young, and Jane wanted someone who could support the children.

Jane married Jones after Hawking married Elaine in 1995. His second marriage is said to have caused friction with his children. They, too, would divorce after a decade together. And later resumed a closer relationship with his first wife and his children.

During an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, he talked about the most important advice he gave his kids. He said: “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning, and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is rare and don’t throw it away.”

And with the world, he once shared this: “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” He put it in another, more humorous way once at the University of Oxford.

After 50 years of living with ALS, Hawking passed away peacefully at his home, on March 14, 2018, at the age of 76. His funeral took place at a church in Cambridge. Guests included the actors from the film about his life, The Theory of Everything.

The movie’s title is a reference to a single theory that Hawking hoped to find to have a complete understanding of the universe. One theory to explain how it all worked. It’s one of the major unsolved problems in physics today.

Despite all that he had accomplished there were things he dreamt of doing but never did. He never got the chance to fly to space, although he did travel aboard Zero Gravity’s Boeing 727 to experience weightlessness.

He was a strong advocate of space travel and living on other planets. He was seriously worried about what he saw as potential threats to humanity: nuclear war, climate change, epidemics, asteroids, and the rise of artificial intelligence.

Hawking’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey not far from the graves of two other famous scientists, Newton and Charles Darwin. While he didn’t believe in predestination, the brilliant scientist who was born on the day Sir Isaac Newton died, died on the day Albert Einstein was born.


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