Illness hits Hawking as fans praise ‘science genius’

Physicist Stephen Hawking has missed his 70th birthday due to an infection. But doctors said he would be dead at 23. Within a failing body, lies a brilliant, stubborn, optimistic mind.

When Stephen Hawking was twelve, two of his classmates bet a bag of candy that he would never amount to anything. Nearly six decades later, as Hawking marks his 70th birthday, they will be eating their words. A middling student at school, and a lazy scholar at university, he is now the most celebrated physicist in the world.

What happened to change a talented but uncommitted young man into one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century? A disaster. At the age of 21, as he was starting to study for his doctorate in physics, he began to realise something was going wrong with his body. After weeks of hospital tests, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and told he had just two years left to live.

That was nearly half a century ago. Defying the grim predictions, Hawking finished his PhD studies and became one of Britain’s most successful scientists. His body was slowly failing, as the nerves controlling his muscles withered and died – but his mind, fed by a new-found enthusiasm for advanced physics, was exploring the depths of black holes, the beginnings of time and the distant edges of the Universe.

Today, Hawking is confined to a wheelchair, only able to move a few muscles in his cheek. He communicates through a computer, at no more than six words per minute. He needs constant care, and is always under threat from infections like the one that caused him to miss his own birthday celebrations over the weekend.

And yet, despite these challenges, he still lives a life of constant work and activity. He has been married twice, and is father of three children. He has appeared in TV programmes like Star Trek and The Simpsons, and achieved global stardom with his Brief History of Time, the best-selling popular science book in history.

Most important, he has kept his upbeat outlook on life. In his birthday speech, delivered in his absence, he told friends: ‘Be curious... however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up.’

Mind over matter

Is Hawking mad to be so brave about his condition? His body has been wrecked by disease. He has endured a lifetime of physical difficulty and suffering. Things that many take for granted – a walk in the park, playing sport, playing an instrument – are forever closed off to him.

No one could envy his disease, admirers admit, but where ordinary people live a physical life, Hawking finds joy in the life of the mind – the extraordinary realm of deep, abstract thought in which he is not disabled, but super-able. There are pleasures there that most of us will never know.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather have a brilliant mind in a failing body or a brilliant body with a failing mind?
  2. How do you think attitudes to disability have affected public perceptions of Stephen Hawking? How do you think Stephen Hawking has affected public perceptions of disability?

Activities

  1. If you could be a top thinker in one academic subject, which would you choose? Write a short article explaining your choice and your reasons.
  2. Stephen Hawking recently said women were ‘a complete mystery’. What do you think is life’s greatest mystery? Create a two minute illustrated talk on your chosen mystery, with the aid of further research, and present it to your class.

Some People Say...

“I would give my right arm to be as clever as Stephen Hawking!”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do I care about a 70-year-old theoretical physicist?
Stephen Hawking has done more than anyone else alive to get people thinking about the fundamental laws of the universe. He has also made big contributions to serious science, answering big questions about black holes and about how galaxies and stars came into being.
Okay, but how much difference does theoretical physics make to everyday life.
All sorts of useful technology depends on work that theoretical physicists and mathematicians have done, from nuclear power to the microchip. If humans are ever able to travel between stars, it will be physics that has paved the way.
Is there anything Stephen Hawking does not understand?
Yes. Women. In an interview withNew Scientist magazine, he called females ‘a complete mystery.’

Word Watch

Eating their words
In this odd English expression, to eat one’s words is to admit to being wrong. The idea is that by ‘eating’ words, you could take back what has been spoken.
A lazy scholar
Hawking once worked out that he did only one hour’s work per day at university before his diagnosis.
Motor neurone disease
Motor neurone disease is actually a family of diseases that attack the nerves that attack the nerves which control the muscles. It is incurable, and usually fatal within five years.
Black holes
Black holes are areas of space in which matter is so dense (and has so much gravitational pull) that not even light can escape.

Subjects

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