On Jan. 8, 1942, Stephen Hawking was born to Frank and Isobel Hawking and later became one of the most prominent scientists of all time, having a thriving career for half a century and notching up over 150 scientific papers and a dozen or so books. His achievements are made even more astounding given his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since age 21.
As Hawking celebrated his 75th birthday, NASA and other scientific organizations paid tribute, with amateur scientists in Near Space Education and Research (NEAR) launching a balloon into the stratosphere with a birthday greeting. On our part, we look back on his remarkable life and career as a widely celebrated theoretical physicist.
It is no small feat for a man living with a form of the motor-neuron disease ALS to live this long. In 1963 at age 21, Hawking was given by doctors five years to live after his diagnosis.
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a progressive condition leading to a dysfunction of the nerves that govern muscle movement. Over time, it will result in muscle weakness and eventually remove the patient’s ability to control bodily functions. It also affects nerves controlling breathing.
ALS is inherited in up to 10 percent of cases, but the exact underlying cause remains unknown in the remaining 90 to 95 percent of cases. It could occur because of genetic mutation, chemical imbalance, faulty immune response, protein mishandling in the nerve cells, or other factors.
Most ALS patients live only up to five years following the onset of the symptoms, with about 10 percent surviving 10 years at a minimum.
“When I think that it has been 52 years since Stephen was first diagnosed, that to me is a miracle," Hawking's former wife Jane said in a 2015 interview with The Telegraph.
Genius Life In The Sciences
After completing his Ph.D., Hawking became a research fellow and later a professorial fellow, starting to work at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. Among his early feats, back in 1976, was to win the Royal Society Medal for his groundbreaking work on the study of black holes.
He started to work on “A Brief History of Time,” the book that would catapult him to fame and stay in the bestseller list for 237 weeks, in the early 1980s. By the time the book came out in 1988, he had moved to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position he held up to 2009.
His life story was told in the movie "The Theory of Everything," which starred Eddie Redmayne and gave him an Oscar Best Actor award.
The man is known for his bold scientific pronouncements, including warnings that humanity has only 1,000 years left on Earth and efforts should revolve around finding another planet to live on.
Hawking is also part of collaborations for deep space exploration, including a team-up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to send interstellar probes to a nearby star system for the first time in about 20 to 30 years.
The search for alien life is also an area of keen interest for the the astrophysicist, who feared that extraterrestrial life might be technologically advanced enough to conquer humans and treat them as underdogs.
"One day we might receive a signal from a planet like this, but answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn't turn out so well,” Hawking warned.
At his age, Hawking is still in the lecture circuit and will speak about black holes to an audience in Oxford, England, on Jan. 18.
Calling people who flaunt their I.Q. “losers” and deeming life tragic “if it weren’t funny,” the scientist offers sound advice to others:
“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”