Professor Stephen Hawking turns 75
Stephen William Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England to Frank and Isobel Hawking. He has two younger sisters, Philippa and Mary, and an adopted brother, Edward.
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As an undergraduate, Hawking attended Oxford University and received a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences, although he claims to have studied for only 1,000 hours to achieve it.
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking on 10 October 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA © Santi Visalli/Getty Images
Hawking the cosmologist
As a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Hawking began working on cosmic singularities – points in space-time that have zero volume and infinite gravitational strength, predicted to exist according to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theory that singularities exist at the centre of black holes, Hawking applied the same concept to the Universe, concluding that it must have started in such a singularity: the Big Bang.
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Motor neurone disease takes hold
During his time at Cambridge Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, also known as, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Although he was expected to live for only two more years, he survives to this day and it still one of the foremost figures in science.
Professor Stephen Hawking in his office at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, circa 1990 © Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images
In 1974, Hawking published a paper showing that quantum effects around black holes leads them to emit radiation (later dubbed ‘Hawking Radiation’), shrink, and explode. Such radiation or explosions have never been detected, but the theoretical link he demonstrated between thermodynamics, quantum theory and gravity is still being explored, and may well be crucial to an ultimate theory of everything.
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Stephen Hawking met his first wife, Jane Wilde, when at Cambridge and they were married in 1965. As his disease worsened, the weight of looking after their three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy, took its toll on their marriage and the couple separated in 1995. He soon after married his nurse Elaine Mason, although they too divorced in 2006.
Stephen Hawking and wife Elaine Mason, 2004 © Dave Benett/Getty Images
A Brief History Of Time
In 1988, Hawking’s landmark book A Brief History Of Time was published. This exploration of space, time and black holes brought cosmology to the masses and would go on to sell more than 10 million copies.
The Grand Design
The publication of The Grand Design in 2010, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, claimed to provide “answers to the ultimate questions of life”. Evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins said of the book "Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace."
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A keen fan of science fiction and popular culture, Stephen Hawking has appeared in many TV shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory.
Lesser known works
Although less familiar to the public, Hawking has worked on aspects of quantum gravity, aiming for a so-called ‘theory of everything’ that unifies the incompatible theories of the very small (quantum physics) and very large (the General Theory of Relativity).
His first significant work in this area in 1980 was in support of a now-dismissed theory named ‘N=8 Supergravity’. Unlike other theories linked to the idea of fundamental particles having ‘supersymmetric’ partners, this had the advantage of only requiring four dimensions of space and time.
More recently, Hawking has focused his ‘theory of everything’ efforts on string theory.
Stephen Hawking attends the EE British Academy Film Awards at The Royal Opera House on 8 February 2015 © Mike Marsland/WireImage
The future of humanity
Stephen Hawking has frequently raised concerns about the future of humanity and in 2006 issued the first of his warnings on risks for human survival, ranging from nuclear self-destruction and being dominated by AI to alien invaders.
Oil sketch by Yolanda Sonnabend for a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Stephen Hawking © Science Museum/SSPL/Getty Images
Life in film
In 2014, Hawking was portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in the Bafta award-winning film The Theory Of Everything, based on the book Travelling To Infinity by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane. It is not the first time his life was portrayed in film, Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the 2004 BBC film Hawking.
Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking attend the UK Premiere of The Theory Of Everything © Mike Marsland/WireImage
Although Hawking’s condition with motor neuron disease has steadily deteriorated, he is a strong patron of disability outreach. As well as fighting to protect disability rights and the right to die for the terminally ill, he also narrated the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge and has even experienced weightlessness.
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The hunt for extra-terrestrial life
In April 2016, Stephen Hawking, along with Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced Breakthrough Starshot, an ambitious project to send tiny StarChips to Alpha Centauri in the hunt for extra terrestrials.
Stephen Hawking and others attend the New Space Exploration Initiative 'Breakthrough Starshot' Announcement at One World Observatory on 12 April 2016 in New York City, USA © Gary Gershoff/WireImage