Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. At an early age, Hawking showed a passion for science and the sky. At age 21, while studying cosmology at the University of Cambridge, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Despite his debilitating illness, he has done groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology, and his several books have helped to make science accessible to everyone. Part of his life story was depicted in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.
Early Life and Background
The eldest of Frank and Isobel Hawking’s four children, Stephen William Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo—long a source of pride for the noted physicist—on January 8, 1942. His Scottish mother had earned her way into Oxford University in the 1930s—a time when few women were able to go to college. His father, another Oxford graduate, was a respected medical researcher with a specialty in tropical diseases.
Early in his academic life, Hawking, while recognized as bright, was not an exceptional student. During his first year at St. Albans School, he was third from the bottom of his class. But Hawking focused on pursuits outside of school; he loved board games, and he and a few close friends created new games of their own. During his teens, Hawking, along with several friends, constructed a computer out of recycled parts for solving rudimentary mathematical equations.
In 1962, he graduated with honors in natural science and went on to attend Trinity Hall at Cambridge University for a PhD in cosmology.
While Hawking first began to notice problems with his physical health while he was at Oxford—on occasion he would trip and fall, or slur his speech—he didn’t look into the problem until 1963, during his first year at Cambridge.
For the most part, Hawking had kept these symptoms to himself. But when his father took notice of the condition, he took Hawking to see a doctor. For the next two weeks, the 21-year-old college student made his home at a medical clinic, where he underwent a series of tests. He was in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Research on Black Holes
In 1968, Hawking became a member of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. He then published his first book, the highly technical The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973), with G.F.R. Ellis. He also teamed up with Penrose to expand upon his friend’s earlier work.
In 1974, Hawking’s research turned him into a celebrity within the scientific world when he showed that black holes aren’t the information vacuums that scientists had thought they were. In simple terms, Hawking demonstrated that matter, in the form of radiation, can escape the gravitational force of a collapsed star. Hawking radiation was born.
- In 1988 Hawking, a recipient of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, catapulted to international prominence with the publication of A Brief History of Time.
- Hawking is scheduled to fly to the edge of space as one of Sir Richard Branson’s pioneer space tourists.
- In September 2010, Hawking spoke against the idea that God could have created the universe in his book The Grand Design.
- A film about the life of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde was released. The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and encompasses his early life and school days, his courtship and marriage to Wilde, the progression of his crippling disease and his scientific triumphs.