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Famous physicists: Stephen Hawking

stephen hawkingWho is he?

Stephen Hawking is a British physicist and mathematician, who wrote one of the biggest selling popular science books, ‘A Brief History of Time’.

Why is he famous?

Hawking is well-known for his work on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The theory implied that the universe (space and time) has a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes.

Stephen Hawking’s most famous book, 'A Brief History of Time' was written in the 1980s and made an unusual addition to the best-seller list. Here he tried to describe things like the Big Bang, black holes, and superstring theory in a way that non-scientists could understand.

Hawking studied physics at Oxford University, where he got a first class degree. He then went on to Cambridge where he did research in cosmology. After he completed his PhD, he became a Research Fellow and then a Professorial Fellow. Since 1979 he has held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. This position was founded in 1663 and was also held by Isaac Newton, so Stephen Hawking is in very good company.

In the face of adversity

If all of this isn’t impressive enough on its own, Hawking is partially famous because he achieved all of this despite suffering from a serious disability. Just before his 21st birthday he was diagnosed with an incurable motor neurone disease. By the time he was thirty years old, he was no longer able to feed himself or get in and out of bed without help.

After a bout of pneumonia in 1985, Hawking had to undergo a tracheostomy operation on his throat, which removed his ability to speak. This could have been the end of his scientific career, but an American computer expert developed a program that allowed Hawking to select words from a menu on the screen by a movement of his head or eye. The message is then sent to a speech synthesizer that reads it out for him. Commenting on his condition, he said:

‘I’m sure my disability has a bearing on why I’m well known. People are fascinated by the contrast between my very limited physical powers, and the vast nature of the universe I deal with.'

Top quotes

"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special."

"I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars."

"My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all."