Stephen William Hawking is a British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. His scientific works include a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, often called Hawking radiation. Hawking was the first to set forth a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He is a vigorous supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009 and has achieved commercial success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; his book A Brief History of Time stayed on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.
Hawking suffers from a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that has gradually paralysed him over the decades. He now communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device. Hawking married twice and has three children.
Hawking suffers from 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.
Hawking had experienced increasing clumsiness during his final year at Oxford, including a fall on some stairs and difficulties when rowing.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.
In the late 1960s, Hawking’s physical abilities declined: he began to use crutches and ceased lecturing regularly. As he slowly lost the ability to write, he developed compensatory visual methods, including seeing equations in terms of geometry. The physicist Werner Israel later compared the achievements to Mozart composing an entire symphony in his head. Hawking was, however, fiercely independent and unwilling to accept help or make concessions for his disabilities. He preferred to be regarded as “a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person.” Jane Hawking later noted that “Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I’ve called it both at one time or another.” He required much persuasion to accept the use of a wheelchair at the end of the 1960s, but ultimately became notorious for the wildness of his wheelchair driving. Hawking was a popular and witty colleague, but his illness, as well as his reputation for brashness and intelligence, distanced him from some.
Hawking’s speech deteriorated, and by the late 1970s he could only be understood by his family and closest friends. To communicate with others, someone who knew him well would translate his speech into intelligible speech. Spurred by a dispute with the university over who would pay for the ramp needed for him to enter his workplace, Hawking and his wife campaigned for improved access and support for those with disabilities in Cambridge, including adapted student housing at the university. In general, however, Hawking had ambivalent feelings about his role as a disability rights champion: while wanting to help others, he sought to detach himself from his illness and its challenges. His lack of engagement led to some criticism.
During a visit to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research on the border of France and Switzerland in mid-1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia, which in his condition was life-threatening; he was so ill that Jane was asked if life support should be terminated. She refused but the consequence was a tracheotomy, which would require round-the-clock nursing care, and remove what remained of his speech. The National Health Service would pay for a nursing home, but Jane was determined that he would live at home. The cost of the care was funded by an American foundation. Nurses were hired for the three shifts required to provide the round-the-clock support he required. One of those employed was Elaine Mason, who was to become Hawking’s second wife.
For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card.But he then received a computer program called the “Equalizer” from Walt Woltosz. In a method he uses to this day, using a switch he selects phrases, words or letters from a bank of about 2,500–3,000 that are scanned. The program was originally run on a desktop computer. However, Elaine Mason’s husband, David, a computer engineer, adapted a small computer and attached it to his wheelchair. Released from the need to use somebody to interpret his speech, Hawking commented that “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice.”The voice he uses has an American accent and is no longer produced. Despite the availability of other voices, Hawking has retained this original voice, saying that he prefers it and identifies with it. At this point, Hawking activated a switch using his hand and could produce up to 15 words a minute. Lectures were prepared in advance and were sent to the speech synthesiser in short sections to be delivered.
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. With this decline there is a risk of him developing locked-in syndrome, so Hawking is collaborating with researchers on systems that could translate Hawking’s brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations. By 2009 he could no longer drive his wheelchair independently. He has increased breathing difficulties, requiring a ventilator at times and has been hospitalised several times.
When Hawking was a graduate student at Cambridge, his relationship with a friend of his sister, Jane Wilde, 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.
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. 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. A daughter, Lucy, was born in 1970. A third child, Timothy, was born in April 1979.
Hawking rarely discussed his illness and physical challenges, even—in a precedent set during their courtship—with Jane. 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. When in 1974 he was appointed to a position 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.
Hawking returned to Cambridge in 1975 to a new home, 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.
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. 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.
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. The impact of his celebrity was challenging for colleagues and family members, and in one interview Jane described her role as “simply to tell him that he’s not God”. Hawking’s views of religion also contrasted with her strong Christian faith and resulted in tension. 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.”
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. 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.
In 2006 Hawking and Mason quietly divorced and Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane, his children, and grandchildren. Reflecting this happier period, a revised version of Jane’s book called Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen appeared in 2007.
Hawking has received numerous awards and honours. Already early in the list, in 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). At that time, his nomination read:
“Hawking has made major contributions to the field of general relativity. These derive from a deep understanding of what is relevant to physics and astronomy, and especially from a mastery of wholly new mathematical techniques. Following the pioneering work of Penrose he established, partly alone and partly in collaboration with Penrose, a series of successively stronger theorems establishing the fundamental result that all realistic cosmological models must possess singularities. Using similar techniques, Hawking has proved the basic theorems on the laws governing black holes: that stationary solutions of Einstein’s equations with smooth event horizons must necessarily be axisymmetric; and that in the evolution and interaction of black holes, the total surface area of the event horizons must increase. In collaboration with G. Ellis, Hawking is the author of an impressive and original treatise on “Space-time in the Large”.
The citation continues:
“Other important work by Hawking relates to the interpretation of cosmological observations and to the design of gravitational wave detectors.”