Stephen Hawking is probably the best known astrophysicist today. Born in 1942, he is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. His publications for the general public on time and on black holes are best sellers. The man behind the work is as interesting as the scientific theories he proposes.
Stephen Hawking was born in war time Britain, one of four children and the son of Frank and Isobel Hawking. His father was a research biologist. Hawking was interested in studying mathematics but University College, Oxford, where he enrolled, did not offer the subject and so he studied physics instead focusing on relativity, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics. It was obvious to his fellow students and his tutors that he possessed an exceptional intelligence.
On completion of his degree he went to Cambridge for further study in Astronomy and cosmology. At this time he began to notice that his movements were becoming more and more uncoordinated. Faced with a diagnosis of a type of motor-neuron disease and the prognosis of an early death initially provided little motivation for finishing his Ph.D. but he defied all expectations and he says on his website,” But I didn’t die. In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed. That engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for.”
Stephen and Jane married and had three children. Hawking finished his Ph.D. and was awarded a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Hawking’s condition steadily worsened until he was bound to a wheelchair and in need of constant nursing. After contracting pneumonia in 1985 a tracheotomy was performed and he lost his power of speech completely which until then had become increasingly slurred. He now uses a voice synthesizer which he jokingly remarks on as giving him an American accent. He has, however, always felt fortunate that his illness has not impeded his work and research activities. He does a lot of lecture tours and continues to write books to bring a greater understanding of physics and the cosmos to the general public. Despite the enormous popularity of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time, many readers felt it too difficult to fully understand the concepts he presents. He has now written a new book, A Briefer History of Time in the attempt to become more accessible to the general reader. He believes it is important to look to space in a time when the planet is so endangered by human activity that it may die.
For his sixty fifth birthday this year, 2007, he went on a zero gravity flight paid for by millionaire, Richard Branson. He took eight plunges and for the first time in so many years was able to move freely without his wheelchair.
Stephen Hawking maintains his own website. You can also read an interview he gave to The Guardian newspaper which gives some insight into the way he thinks as a result of not being able to move and write mathematical formula. Stephen Hawking writes in a humorous and engaging style and is a well-known character in the media.