Stephen Hawking is the most remarkable and well-known scientist of modern times. His life story has been told in the 2014 Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything, charting his dedicated research into finding a theory that describes the universe and conveying his innovative ideas to millions of people.
The son of a research biologist father and a medical research secretary mother, he was diagnosed at the age of 21 with the debilitating condition, motor neurone disease – also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the United States.
He has never let his condition stand in his way. Now aged 75 years, Hawking, the oldest of four siblings, has developed a new way of thinking about the world and the universe.
Born on 8th January 1942, he grew up in St Albans. Heavily influenced by his parents, Hawking became fascinated by science at an early age – he believed maths and physics offered an insight into the universe. While attending Oxford University, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and began to lose the use of his limbs.
In interviews, Hawking has described how he noticed something was wrong in his third year at Oxford, when he felt himself becoming clumsy and he kept falling over for no apparent reason. He thought nothing more of it but his father noticed too and insisted he went for tests. Hawking described it as a “great shock” when he was diagnosed with MND shortly after his 21st birthday.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Hawking didn’t allow his disability to limit his life and instead trained his mind to work in a different way, visualising problems in his mind instead of writing down equations. Some of his peers believe his unique way of thinking has led to his remarkable discoveries on the theory of black holes – created when huge stars collapse.
A theoretical physicist, author, cosmologist and director of research at Cambridge University’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, Hawking defied all the odds after being diagnosed as having only two years to live. His determination, despite having MND, has been an inspiration to thousands of other people who have the condition, instilling hope within others. He has become a role model, thanks to his unique achievements.
His theories about quantum gravity and black holes have made the complex topic fascinating for a broader public audience.
Hawking has used a wheelchair for most of his adult life – and since 1985 has spoken through his computer system, operated by his cheek. He now has round-the-clock care but he hasn’t let this slow him down, working for three decades as a full professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. In interviews, he has said that he doesn’t require a ventilator to assist with his breathing.
Hawking wasn’t expected to see his 25th birthday when the diagnosis of MND was first made, making his achievements even more remarkable.
MND’s Variable Progress
One fact highlighted by Hawking’s condition is that MND’s progress is variable in many ways. Around 50% of people diagnosed with MND live longer than their original diagnosis and some live for a very long time with the condition.
Hawking has the juvenile-onset type of MND, normally diagnosed in teenage years. This is a condition that progresses slowly and many people who have been diagnosed in their teens are still enjoying a quality of life in their 50s and 60s, according to medical experts.
Positive Mental Outlook
He has always had an active mind – and his interviews seem to indicate he enjoys a positive mental outlook. He has been described as an excellent example of someone whose non-motor parts of the brain haven’t been affected by his condition – mainly the result of the biology of his form of MND, according to the medical profession.
His full life and incredible mental capacity have been described as an example of the extreme variability of MND, giving hope and inspiration to other people who have the condition that they can live an equally long and fulfilling life.
Medical experts say that the progression of Hawking’s condition seems to have halted and he has appeared relatively stable since 2009, when he spent a short time in hospital.
He attended the BAFTAs — Britain’s Academy Awards — to express his admiration for the biopic, The Theory of Everything, that paid homage to his life story and achievements.
In a recent interview, Hawking said his work had granted him focus and extra years that may not have been available to other people with MND who had physical jobs. He said it had helped that his work was in theoretical physics, where the fact he was a disabled person had not been a serious obstacle.
A true inspiration, Stephen Hawking is a modern-day icon.