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An Essential Contribution of Stephen Hawking

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Stephen William Hawking

Stephen Hawking is the most acclaimed theoretical physicist since Albert Einstein. He is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England. A position that was once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He has expanded our understanding of the beginnings of the universe. His groundbreaking research into cosmology and black holes reveals the startling possibilities of time running backwards, an eleven-dimensional universe and a no boundary model of creation.

Hawking s parents lived in London where his father was doing research in medicine. However, it was during World War II and a very dangerous place to be. His mother was sent to the safer town of Oxford where Stephen was born on Jan. 8, 1942. The family was soon reunited and moved to Highgate, north London. Here Stephen began his schooling.

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In 1950, Hawking s father moved to the Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill. The family moved to St. Albans. When Stephen was older he attended St. Albans school but his father wanted him to take the scholarship exam to go to Westminster. Stephen was ill at the time of the exam and remained at St. Albans. Stephen has said that his education at St. Albans was good and that he never found that a lack of social graces has been a hindrance.

His last couple of years in school he wanted to specialize in math where his math teacher had inspired him to study the subject. His father was against the idea and persuaded Stephen to make chemistry his main school subject. His father s reasoning was that he wanted Stephen to go to University College, Oxford, the college he himself had attended, and that school had no math degree.

In 1959, Hawking was awarded a scholarship at Oxford to study natural sciences. At University College, he specialized in physics in his natural sciences degree. From Oxford, he moved to Cambridge to take up research in general relativity and cosmology, a difficult area for someone with only a little math background.

Hawking had noticed that he was becoming rather clumsy during his last year at Oxford. When he returned home for Christmas in 1962 at the end of his first term at Cambridge, his mother persuaded him to see a doctor. In early 1963, he spent two weeks having tests done in the hospital and was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, better known as Lou Gehrig s disease. His condition deteriorated quickly and the doctors predicted that he would not live long enough to complete his doctorate.

Lou Gehrig s disease is a progressive fatal neuromuscular disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain to the spinal cord. Motor neurons, the largest of all nerve cells, reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The disease causes the motor neurons to die and the ability of the brain to start and control muscle movement dies with them. With all voluntary muscle action affected, patients in the later stages are totally paralyzed. Yet, through it all, their minds remain unaffected.

Lou Gehrig s disease is one of the most devastating disorders which affects the function of nerves and muscles. Most who develop it are between the ages of 40 and 70 and both sexes are affected in nearly equal numbers. Nearly 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year. Half of all affected live at least three or more years after diagnosis. Twenty percent live five years of more and up to ten percent will survive more than ten years.

The disease is difficult to diagnose. It is individual in each person in the area of the body affected as well as in the rate of progression. At the onset, symptoms may be so slight that they are frequently overlooked. Early symptoms usually include tripping, dropping things, fatigue of the arms or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and twitches, and uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying. As the disease progresses weakening of the hands and feet cause difficulty in walking or using the hands for daily living such as dressing and washing. The disease eventually affects swallowing, chewing and breathing.

Since Lou Gehrig s attacks only motor neurons, the sense of sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell and muscles of the eyes and bladder are generally not affected. Also, the mind is not impaired and remains sharp despite the progressive degeneration of the body.

Stephen Hawking defied the odds. After his diagnosis he met a girl he wanted to marry and realized he had to complete his doctorate to get a job. They eventually married and had three children. His research progressed and he completed his doctorate in 1966. He was awarded a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, but later became a Professorial Fellow and taught there. In 1973, he joined the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge. In 1977, he became Professor of Gravitational Physics. In 1979, Hawking was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

In the early stages of the disease, he couldn t walk far, so he needed an apartment near the Cambridge campus. Finding a convenient place was difficult and university administrators were uncooperative. A few years and some productive research later, Hawking s disease had progressed to the point that he couldn t negotiate stairs. People were more helpful finding a better place then. He needed more and more assistance, from helpful students and then part-time nurses and finally full-time nursing care.

Between 1965 and 1970 Hawking worked on singularities in the theory of general relativity and devised new mathematical techniques to study this area of cosmology. From 1970, he began to apply his previous ideas to the study of black holes.

Using quantum theory and general relativity, he was able to show that black holes can emit radiation. His success with proving this made him work from that time on combining the theory of general relativity with quantum theory. In 1971, he investigated the creation of the Universe and predicted that, following the big bang, many objects as heavy as 10 tons but only the size of a proton would be created. These mini black holes have large gravitational attraction by the laws of general relativity, while the laws of quantum mechanics would apply to objects that small.

Another remarkable achievement of Hawking s using these same techniques was his no boundary proposal made in 1983. He explains this would mean that both time and space are finite in extent, but the do not have any boundary or edge. There would be no singularities, and the laws of science would hold everywhere, including at the beginning of the universe.

In 1982 he began writing a popular book on cosmology and by 1984 he had produced a first draft of A Brief History of Time. However, Hawking suffered further illness in 1985. He caught pneumonia and was on life support in a hospital in Geneva. The doctor there told his wife it was not worth keeping him on life support. His wife flew him back to Cambridge where a surgeon there carried out a tracheotomy. An operation that saved his life but took away his voice.

He was given a computer system to enable him to have an electronic voice. It was with these difficulties that he revised the draft of A Brief History of Time which was published in 1988. The book broke all sales records. It had been on The Sunday Times bestseller list 237 weeks by May 1995. This feat is recorded in the 1998 Guiness Book of Records. He has also published several other books including 300 Years of Gravity and Black Holes and Baby Universes.

The scientist appears for work a Cambridge University about 11 a.m. each day and works into the evening conferring with students, correcting papers, attending lectures, and writing. He also lectures to crowded audiences. The transformers and chargers for the batteries on his 300-pound wheelchair contribute to the 22 pieces of luggage necessary when Hawking travels. Able to see, swallow, and smile he is otherwise limited to triggering a wheelchair button with one hand.

Doctors predicted decades ago that he only had a few years to live. As a result, he became more determined to get the most from life. He didn t die. Instead, as his condition worsened, his reputation in scientific circles continued to grow, as if to show the mind s repudiation of the body s limitations. He has been labeled the smartest person in the world.


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