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Stephen Hawking

  b. 1942 | English physicist

At The Bottom

After two weeks of grueling medical tests, Hawking received terrible news.

Stephen Hawking, a recent graduate of Oxford, was a 21-year-old Cambridge graduate student in theoretical astronomy and cosmology when he began to exhibit unusually clumsy behavior.  He fell down a flight of stairs and seemed to be stumbling more frequently as he walked.  Hawking felt a growing numbness in his limbs.  While visiting his family during holiday break, he fell down during an ice skating session with his mother and was unable to pick himself up.  His parents urged him to visit the family doctor, who referred him to a specialist. After two weeks of grueling medical tests, Hawking received terrible news.  He was suffering from Motor Neuron Disease (known in the US as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or more commonly as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”)  Over time, doctors explained, the nerve cells in Hawking’s spine and brain would gradually crumble, causing his muscles to cease functioning.  He would soon enough be confined to a wheelchair, and as he neared death he would find it nearly impossible to swallow or breathe.  There seemed to be no hope that Hawking would live to complete his degree; indeed, the doctors prepared him for the likelihood that he would suffer an agonizing death within two years, or sooner. .

At The Top

One of the most important scientific thinkers of the 20th century.

Stephen Hawking, now almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak since the mid-1980s, received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society, which recognized his decades of contributions to theoretical physics and theoretical cosmology.  The Copley Medal predates the Nobel Prize by almost two full centuries and is in fact the world’s oldest award for scientific accomplishment.  His theoretical work on subjects such as black holes, the shape of the universe, quantum gravity, and wormholes, among other contemporary problems in physics, had assured him a role as one of the most important scientific thinkers of the 20th century. His numerous popular books — especially the best-selling Brief History of Time — had made him a household name as well, even among people who knew nothing else about physics.  While serving as an ambassador for science, he has also proven to be a role model for people facing physical challenges.  He often jokes about the limitations his disease has placed upon him, observing that while “there are some things I can’t do, they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway.”

The Comeback

His disease gave him a renewed sense of purpose and urgency.

While he was in the hospital, having just received his grim diagnosis, Stephen Hawking watched a young boy succumb to leukemia.  He realized that despite his unfortunate situation, he had already enjoyed a longer and more fortunate life than this poor child, whom he thought of often over the years whenever he felt a twinge of self-pity.   Hawking found that his disease gave him a renewed sense of purpose and urgency.  He began dreaming that he had been given a reprieve from an execution, and he realized that he still had worthwhile goals to accomplish.  Struggling against pessimism, Hawking returned to Cambridge and threw himself into his studies; he developed a romantic relationship with the woman who would later become his first wife.  And though his physical condition deteriorated rapidly, his mind was sharper than ever.  He lived to complete his thesis, by which time his contributions to theoretical physics were already creating a buzz within the scholarly community.

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