Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Genius Profile: Stephen Hawking

Who’s Who
Stephen Hawking is one of the world's most prominent theoretical physicists and cosmologists, whose rare abilities to make abstruse scientific ideas accessible to the general public have turned him into an academic celebrity and bestselling author.

The Early Days

He was born on 8th January, 1942 to Dr. Frank Hawking (a research biologist) and Isobel Hawking. He was brought up in North London, where he attended St Albans High School For Girls (Boys could attend up to the age of 10) and then St. Albans School. Surprisingly, he was never an exceptional student. He had a keen interest in mathematics, a subject he wanted to study; however his father wanted him to study at his alma mater, University College, Oxford.

Since they did not have a math fellow at the time, they weren't accepting applications for that subject. Instead, Hawking opted for the natural sciences and specialized in physics and thermodynamics. Although his study habits were poor, many of his teachers admit to being awestruck at how he could figure out how to do something just as long as he knew it could be done. They also realized during oral exams that they were communicating with someone far more intelligent than themselves.

He received his B.A. degree from Oxford and went on to study astronomy. Finding that he was more interested in theoretical physics, he moved on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to specialize in theoretical astronomy and cosmology.

Obliterating Obstacles

While at Cambridge, Hawking was diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a motor neuron disorder that has left him progressively paralyzed over the years. He also suffered from Pneumonia in 1985, which led to him having a tracheotomy that left him unable to speak at all.

A Cambridge scientist developed a device that allowed him to write onto a computer with small movements of his body, and these words were then spoken out loud by a voice synthesizer. It was through this device that he was even able to write his runaway bestseller, ‘A Brief History of Time,’ which included several of his theories about space and time.

Crazy Career

Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for over 30 years after receiving his PhD, and he only retired in 2009. He is currently the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He is especially known for his contributions in the fields of cosmology, with a focus on quantum gravity and black holes. His theoretical prediction of the emission of radiation from black holes is known as Hawking Radiation.

His smash hit book ‘A Brief History of Time’ stayed on the British Sunday Times bestsellers list for a record-breaking 237 months. He followed that up with several sequels, and has even written a children's science book that he described as "Harry Potter, without all the magic." Hawking has also helped make physics accessible to the masses, giving hundreds of lectures and appearing as himself in everything ranging from late-night talk shows to The Simpsons and Family Guy.

He's been awarded just about every honour possible for a scientist,including a Fellowship at the Royal Society, the Albert Einstein Medal, the Wolf Prize, a Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Copley Medal, to name but a few. He's also been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was given the USA's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2009.

Personal Probe

Hawking revealed that at one point in his life, he never saw the point in completing his doctorate when he knew he was going to die soon. He claimed the turning point in his life to be his marriage with Jane Wilde, a language student, in 1965. She cared for him untill 1991 when they finally separated due to pressure from his increasing fame and his worsening disability. They had 3 children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy.

Hawking then went on to marry Elaine Mason (the ex-wife of David Mason, the same man who invented the device Hawking used to communicate!) in 1995. He divorced her in 2006 amid several claims from former nurses that she abused him.

Quirky Quotes

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

"There's no heaven or afterlife--that's just a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We've created life in our own image.”

“When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.”

“I have hardly ever known a mathematician who was able to reason.”

"I think people who boast about their IQs are losers."

“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.

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