Maggie: Why don’t we talk about something you are interested in for the next few blog posts?
John: Thanks for thinking of me and my interests. But is there anything I am working on that also sparks your interests?
Maggie: You are always reading about Stephen Hawking and I would like to know more about him. And I know you heard him speak several years ago. So let’s discuss him.
John: I did hear him lecture and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Maggie: Before we discuss his science, why don’t you tell me about his life. We could do that in this conversation, and then discuss his theories in conversations after that. What do you think of that as a plan?
John: I like it. But I should tell you that I am not a Hawking expert, or even a physics expert.
Maggie: I get that. But it doesn’t make the conversation any less interesting. Or any less important.
John: I agree. We have to begin somewhere and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss any topic, whether we are experts in that topic or not. And, to some degree, a discussion by non-experts is more interesting and does more to advance a topic than delving into the minutia of experts.
So where do you want to begin?
Maggie: Let’s start at the beginning and work forward.
John: You mean chronologically?
John: Okay. Hawking was born in 1942, during the course of World War II. This next point is interesting to science nerds: he was born on the same day of the year that Galileo Galilei died, but exactly 300 years later. This has led some people to suggest a sort of passing of the astronomical baton from Galileo to Hawking.
Maggie: That’s kind of mystical. What were Galileo’s big discoveries?
John: His biggest discovery was that the universe was heliocentric.
Maggie: I like that word, but what does it mean?
John: Prior to Galileo, people thought that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that the sun and planets all rotated around the earth. That is called a geocentric universe. Galileo discovered that the sun was in fact at the center of our solar system and that the planets (including earth) rotated around the sun. That is called a heliocentric universe. This, of course, was a paradigm shifting theory, meaning that astronomy changed dramatically after that.
Maggie: Did he discover anything else important to our discussion of Hawking?
John: Yes. He also discovered four moons revolving around Jupiter and that there are many more stars then those visible to the human eye. The latter discovery really freaked people out because it suggested that the universe was much bigger than they had previously thought.
Maggie: Then Hawking comes along 300 years later and picks up Galileo’s baton?
John: Right. Like Galileo, Hawking also made some mind-bending discoveries about the universe, including the size of the universe.
But his real genius was his ability to make science come alive to the general public. He wrote some best-selling books written for non-scientists, gave public lectures, and participated in pop-culture by appearing on various sitcoms and television shows. His work inspired a whole new generation of students to study science. That’s why I like him so much.
Maggie: I loved him on The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek: TNG.
John: Me too.
Maggie: Didn’t he come from a smart family?
John: Yes. Both his parents studied at the University of Oxford. His dad studied medicine and his mom studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). They both then worked in the medical field. In fact, when Stephen Hawking went to college at the University of Oxford his father urged him to study medicine. But lucky for us he said no, and studied physics instead.
Maggie: Was he a good student in high school?
John: He appears to have been a pretty good student. He apparently showed enough aptitude in science and math that one of his tutors wanted him to read mathematics (we call in majoring in math) at Oxford. He also had a good group of friends with whom he played games and built models.
Maggie: I heard he was sort of lazy when he was in college. That is what the movie about him suggested, The Theory of Everything. It starred Eddie Redmayne. How cute is he?
John: That was such a good movie. And yes, Redmayne is a great actor.
Maggie: I see what you did there! But back to my question: was he a lazy student?
John: That seems to have been true. He started at the University of Oxford in 1959, at the age of 17, and he later admitted that he didn’t study very much as an undergraduate. So when he took his final exams at the end of his undergraduate years he didn’t do as well as wanted to do. He was right on the cusp between a first-class degree and a second-class degree, and he needed a “first” to attend the University of Cambridge for graduate studies in physics. But he was held in high regard by the faculty, so they gave him a follow-up oral exam. During the exam, he told the professors, “If you give 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.” Which they did.
Maggie: So he went to Cambridge after Oxford?
John: Yes, he became a doctoral student in cosmology at Cambridge in 1962.
Maggie: What is cosmology?
John: It is the study of the origin and development of the universe, and the laws that govern these things. It looks at topics like string theory, dark matter and dark energy, and multiverses. Think about Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. He’s really a cosmologist, just like Hawking.
Maggie: I get it. So Hawking gets to Cambridge, then what happened?
John: Lucky for him, he met three people who became very important to his future success.
First, although he had wanted Fred Hoyle (a famous astronomer) to be his thesis supervisor, Hawking was assigned to Dennis Sciama, a founder of modern cosmology. Hawking was initially disappointed, but Sciama turned out to be a very sympathetic advisor, especially after Hawking contracted ALS. With Sciama’s encouragement, the young scholar was able to overcome the depression he experienced after his initial ALS diagnosis and return to work on his degree.
Second, he met Roger Penrose, the famous mathematical-physicist. Penrose was working in the area of black holes at the time. Hawking borrowed one of his theories and applied it to the entire universe. Because Hawking’s mathematics training was insufficient for the complicated work he was doing for his dissertation, Penrose also taught Hawking the math and physics Hawking needed to finish his work.
Third, he met Jane Wilde in 1963, shortly before he was diagnosed with ALS. Jane would later become his wife, in 1965. She assisted him as he worked to complete his degree and, later, as he carried on his professional research.
With the significant help of these three people, Hawking completed his dissertation and was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1966.
Maggie: Can you tell me about his ALS?
John: ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or motor neuron disease. It affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. When these cells degenerate and eventually die, the individual suffering from ALS loses muscle control, and eventually loses the ability to move, speak, eat, and breathe.
Hawking began noticing some clumsiness while he was at Oxford, particularly in his last year. But this got worse at Cambridge, and Hawking was finally diagnosed with ALS in 1963, early in his graduate studies. He was given two years to live, but obviously that diagnosis was incorrect. He went through an initial period of depression, but was able to come out of it with the help of Sciama and Jane Wilde.
His ALS progressed more slowly than his doctors had originally thought. But as he lost more and more control of his bodily movements, his family and friends stepped in to encourage and assist him, and with their help he finished his degree. This is significant to me. While I am sure there were times when he felt alone, Hawking wasn’t alone. He had a good group of people around him. It shows how important our families and friends are to both our physical and mental health.
Maggie: I hope I have family and friends around me like he did if I ever become sick like that.
John: And, more importantly, I hope we are around to help our family and friends if they ever need our help.
Maggie: I agree. That is more important.
John: I also like the fact that Hawking didn’t let his ALS stop him from pursuing his career. Despite the ALS, Hawking worked hard and attained a measure of success.
Maggie: Like you always say: circumstances are just circumstances to overcome.
John: You actually listen to me?
Maggie: Once in a while. But back to Hawking. So he was diagnosed with ALS, but still got his Ph.D. Then what happened?
John: The ALS progressed, and by the end of the 1960s he was using a wheelchair. Here is something funny. Hawking was a fiercely independent person, and he didn’t let the ALS stop him from enjoying himself. He apparently used to drive his wheelchair wildly around campus, causing people to have to jump out of his way.
Maggie: He sounds like a funny guy.
John: I think he was, even as his disease progressed.
He slowly lost control of his speech as a result of the ALS, so that by the end of the 1970s only Jane and his friends could understand him. In the mid-1980s, he lost his speech completely when he contracted pneumonia and had to have an emergency tracheotomy. Shortly thereafter he received the first computer that spoke for him. He controlled the computer by pressing a switch that chose from a bank of letters, words, and phrases. The technology gradually increased while his ALS became worse, adapting to his changing needs. At one point, the computer worked off of just his cheek movements. And this is interesting to me: his first computer used an American accent, which Hawking kept over the years because it was the voice with which he was identified. When I heard him speak in 2001, he had pre-typed the lecture and delivered it in segments as the talk went along. And it was the same American voice he was given years earlier. He had also pre-typed answers to questions that had been delivered to him prior to the presentation, and his answers were both informative and funny. It was a good evening.
Maggie: Can you tell me more about his family? His wife must have been the most patient person in the world.
John: Sure. He married Jane in 1965. Hawking once said that Jane gave him something to live for after he was diagnosed with ALS. They had their first son, Robert, two years later, in 1967. Hawking was just a year out of his Ph.D. program and working as a research fellow at Cambridge University. His daughter Lucy was born three years later, in 1970. Then his last son, Timothy, was born in 1979.
As a result of the ALS, the care for Hawking and all the family responsibilities fell on Jane. This continued until the mid-1970s, when Hawking began receiving help from live-in graduate students and then professional nurses. He eventually fell in love with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, and left his family. This happened in 1990. He then divorced Jane in 1995 and married Mason. This marriage was marred by allegations that Mason abused Hawking, and the couple divorced in 2006. Afterwards, Hawking worked to repair his friendship with Jane and become closer to his children.
Maggie: It sounds like the whole experience was tough on his first wife, and probably his kids.
John: I imagine it was at times. The family had to live with not only Hawking’s disability, but also his growing fame as a scientist. Those two things together can be hard on a family.
Maggie: But it makes me mad that he left his family for another woman.
John: Well, let’s be clear about this. The marriage wasn’t working for either of them. Jane had also fallen in love with a family friend, whom she met through her choir. He had helped Jane care for Hawking for several years, and they gradually grew to love each other. Hawking was aware of the relationship, even while his own feelings for Mason were developing.
Maggie: Well that kind of makes me sad. But I am glad that Hawking and Jane were able to rediscover their friendship after Hawking’s second divorce.
John: You really are a romantic, aren’t you?
Maggie: I am ignoring that question. Why don’t you tell me about his career?
John: Let me hit the career highlights here, and then we will talk more about his theories in the following discussions.
Maggie: That sounds good.
John: With the exception of some sabbatical leaves, Hawking spent his entire career at Cambridge University. As I said previously, he first worked as a research fellow. In 1974, he was inducted into the Royal Society as a Fellow, which is a prestigious award, recognizing his significant contributions to science. Then in 1979, he was appointed to the most famous academic chair in the world: the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. This is the same chair Isaac Newton held when he was at Cambridge. During these and the following years he published extensively, including works on black holes and what later became known as Hawking radiation.
In 1988, he published A Brief History of Time. This popular book sold over 10 million copies and was made into a movie. It also made him wealthy. Hawking went on to publish several other popular books, including The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, God Created the Integers, and The Grand Design. He also published a series of children’s books with his daughter Lucy, the first of which was entitled George’s Secret Key to the Universe.
Hawking retired from his position as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics in 2009, but continued to work and conduct research until his death.
Maggie: When did he die?
John: Hawking died on March 14, 2018. He was 76 years old. He had defied the odds, lived many years after his ALS diagnosis, made significant contributions to science, published both academic and popular works, inspired a whole new generation of scientists, and left the world a better place for his having been in it.
Maggie: He’s inspiring.
John: To me too.
Maggie: I like quotes. Can you tell me some of Hawking’s most famous ones?
John: Sure. Here are my favorites:
- The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
- Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.
- It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life…. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.