Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius

Let's take a look at the life of one of the most recognized names in modern science, theoretical physicist, and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
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He was one of the most recognized names in modern science.

His mind ranks him among the smartest humans to have ever lived.

He was a theoretical physicist and cosmologist.

With a life like no other, he is Stephen Hawking.

To many, Stephen Hawking is best known for his outstanding achievements and significant contributions to modern science.

To others, he was a son, a brother, a friend, and an inspiration. Stephen Hawking was incredibly insightful with a remarkable talent to express his opinion, despite the challenges he faced with a life bound to a chair. Although his body was restricted, his mind lived stronger than ever.

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

Diagnosed with ALS in his young 20's, Stephen Hawking far outlived the short lifespan his doctors projected for him. Hawking passed away at 76, on March 14, 2018.

Though he is known as the magnificent scientist constrained to a chair, few know the lesser details of his life including his humble beginnings, challenges he faced, and exactly what his contributions were to the scientific community.

He was a man of mystery, yet his charming voice gave people motivation to overcome life's challenges. Through provoking unconventional thoughts and pursuing dreams despite the challenging odds, Stephen Hawking conveys a story of inspiration for many people in many ways.

Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius
Source:NASA HQ PHOTO /Flickr

Stephen Hawking: A Life Like No Other

Early Life

Born in the middle of the Second World War, on January 8th, 1942, in Oxford, England, Stephen William Hawking came into the world. Coincidently, it fell on the 300th death anniversary of Galileo. Born into a family of academics, Stephen Hawking is the eldest his four siblings.

Before he was born, Stephens parents, Frank and Isobel made the decision to have the baby (Stephen) in Oxford. During the war, Nazi bombing raids did not as heavily target Oxford, making it a much safer place to raise akin.

Although he was born at a time of political instability in the country and financial uncertainty for his family, Stephen Hawking already received an invaluable gift of thought from his intellectual parents. His mother, Isobel, earned her way into Oxford University in the 1930s. At the time, women were rarely able to attend college, let alone receive acceptance to one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. His father, Frank, also an Oxford graduate, was a reputable medical researcher with a specialty in tropical diseases.

Stephen Hawking's parents were rather disciplined and stern about education and the importance of learning. Despite the war, Stephen Hawking's parents insisted that their children pursue a higher education. Their principle, however, would later come to assist Stephen Hawking and his brilliance. In his early education, he consistently performed slightly above average in comparison to his peers. Though his intellect advantage was slight, Stephen Hawking soon began to show signs of brilliance.

It was around the time of high school that Hawking's academic abilities began to reflect his true genius. It would not be long before the aspiring scholar would seek a higher education.

A passion for knowledge

At the young age of 17, Stephen Hawking entered Oxford University. Admittedly, he was not an ambition student, once admitting he would only dedicate about an hour a day to school work. As one of the youngest students in the class, Stephen Hawking was rather lonely. He would go on to finish his degree in cosmology.

In 1962, Stephen Hawking continued his education at Cambridge University to pursue a Ph.D. in cosmology. A year later, he would be diagnosed with ALS.

Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius
Source: RV1864/Flickr 

Battling Illness

ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive motor neuron disease that over time restricts a person's ability to control their muscles.

Over some time, Stephen Hawking began to notice slurring of his speech and a few clumsy unexplained incidents. At the young age of 21, he was told that he would not live longer than a few years. However, despite a medical timestamp on his life, he kept pursuing his passion - science. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated to the point where by the late 1960's, he was unable to use crutches and had to succumb to a wheelchair. Stephen Hawking, however, would not be held back by his impairment. Though his body fell ill, his mind grew more inconceivable than ever.

“Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.”   —Stephen Hawking

A mounting challenge

By the time he was in his mid-30s, Stephen Hawking, having already outlived the original doctors’ predictions, began to search for a way to compensate for his speech impediment. Soon, his voice became incomprehensible to even his peers and family. Through using different interpreters and tools allowed Stephen Hawking to express his ideas.

Eventually, Stephen Hawking came upon a computer program called “Equalizer." The program would allow him to use a switch to select the words and phrases that he would convey. 

Stephen Hawking's chair is a remarkable piece of engineering

Throughout the years, Stephen Hawking and his family would continue to upgrade and update his communication tools. Since 1997, Intel has sponsored the computer-based communication system. The system consists of a custom tablet computer that is powered by the wheelchair batteries. 

The software the computer runs is based on an open source program called ACAT, written by Intel. A keyboard appears on screen with a cursor that automatically scans the letters by row or column. Using his cheeks to stop the cursor, he can select any character. An infrared camera mounted on his glasses detects his cheek's movements. Stephen Hawking's chair is a remarkable piece of engineering integrated with advanced technology to allow Hawking and others alike to interact with the world through their computers. On his website, Stephen Hawking explains the process of his speech system. 

"ACAT includes a word prediction algorithm provided by SwiftKey, trained on my books and lectures, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer. I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech Plus. It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish."

Operates like a normal computer

The program ACAT further enables Stephen Hawking to control the mouse in Windows, allowing him to operate the computer beyond the speech program.

"I can check my email using the Eudora email client, surf the internet using Firefox, or write lectures using Microsoft Word. My latest computer from Intel also contains a webcam which I use with Skype to keep in touch with my friends. I can express a lot through my facial expressions to those who know me well," says Hawking.

Despite a crippling disease, Stephen Hawking still taught lectures. It required an incredible amount of thought to allow Hawking to relay his own. Though it was a challenge, Stephen Hawking's resiliency did not allow him to give up his gift of passing knowledge.

Rather, his "impairment" would prove to be beneficial. The technology would prove especially helpful before lectures and speeches to come. With his ability to quickly type his words, computer engineers could easily take the input and put it into his lectures. His premade lectures gave rise to a new way of teaching. Instead of having the class sit and listen in, the entire lecture was available before the class began. Before the lecture began his students had a chance to read the exact content and not miss a word.

"I write the lecture beforehand then save it to disk. I can then use a part of the ACAT software called Lecture Manager to send it to the speech synthesizer a paragraph at a time. It works quite well and I can try out the lecture and polish it before I give it." Hawking explains.

Improving the technology

From using his cheek muscles to speak one word per minute, to driving his wheelchair with his chin, there have been and still are countless efforts being made to accommodate the debilitating disease. Stephen Hawking has also experimented with eye tracking and brain-controlled interfaces to communicate with my computer. Although, for the time being, he prefers his cheek operated switch.

"Although [other technologies] work well for other people, I still find my cheek operated switch easier and less fatiguing to use." Claims Hawking.

To this day, he continues to look for ways to use innovative technology to accurately communicate and connect with his computer, demonstrating ALS is not a limitation.

Greatest Achievements

Despite living a life bound to a chair by an incapacitating disease, Stephen Hawking's mind remained unbound. His scientific discovery and other achievements span an impressive array of inspiration and intellect.

When he passed away, Stephen Hawking still had the title of the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. And he had an office at the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University.

However, it was his passion for the upper bound of the universe that puts his genius into perspective.

It is well known Stephen Hawking's mind gravitated towards the stars. His line of work includes the continuation of Isaac Newton's and the even more prominent Albert Einstein’s theories.

Newtonian Physics

Dating back over a hundred years, the notion of gravity was still best understood by Newton's descriptions of gravitational fields.

Newton's theory describes the idea that all objects with mass create a sort of "field" that permeates space- similar to the effects of a magnet. All objects with mass have this property, enabling them to interact and exert forces on each other. The effects were noted in the sky including the hold Earth has on the moon, or more famously, the pull of the Earth on an apple.

Einstein’s Intervention

Einstein’s theory would later debunk Newtonian physics demonstrating critical flaws in traditional physics. For a wave to travel there must be matter for it to pass on. However, gravity passes through the vacuum of space, raising concern for the theory. An assumption was made that in the universe there exist a substance known as Ether. It does not interact with the universe in any way, other than it lets waves like gravity and light to flow freely.

The theory held too many assumptions to be a valid explanation. Instead, Einstein suggested gravity does travel as a wave; rather, gravity is an artifact of space itself. The new theory prompted the idea that massive bodies interact with space by bending it.

Massive bodies in space effectively warp space (and time) around them. Light, which travels near the grip of massive bodies is forcibly bent, creating a sort of lens enabling the projection of lights behind massive objects to be seen, so the theory goes. With this in mind, Einstein took to the sun to prove the theory.

Proving gravity bends space

Sir Frank Watson Dyson, Astronomer Royal of Britain proposed a brilliant plan to resolve the issue. Dyson would soon carry out the first experimental test of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

On May 29, 1919, a total solar eclipse would occur as the sun was crossing the bright Hyades star cluster.

If the theory held, Dyson proposed the Sun should bend the light of the obscured stars just enough to bring them into view through a telescope.

The eclipse began, blocking out the Sun. For just a few moments, Dyson could photograph the sky and see whether the stars (who should remain hidden behind the Sun) could be made visible as space bent around the star.

Sure enough, the theory held. The stars were clearly visible. Overlaying the photograph at night on top of the picture during the eclipse revealed the position of the stars shifted slightly. The photographs served as the evidence that could validate that gravity is an artifact of space.

Black Holes

Einstein and a few other scientists further made the proposition that a star could then be so so large that it would collapse under its own gravity. The process would cause the star to shrink into an infinitesimally small point of infinite density- a singularity. The gravitational force encircling the singularity would be so strong that not even light could escape - thus the black hole was born.

Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius
A black hole consumes matter and light around it,Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The idea of a singularity bewildered many physicists. Without further evidence and no means of extrapolation, the idea began to diminish.

The idea would not resurface until 1959- the year Stephen Hawking began his undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford.

Hawking's mind was consumed by the profound interlocking idea of general relativity and black holes. His mind, captivated by the beauty of the theory, began to show his exceptional brilliance.

Under the guidance of cosmologist Denis Sciama, the two began to work on the idea of black holes.  Soon enough, the two colleagues began to dwell on the idea of the Big Bang Theory, drawing striking similarities. The Big Bang suggests the universe sprouted from a singularity that expanded to become all that is - the entire universe. Though it is universally accepted now, at the time, the notion of how the universe came to be was still in heated debate.

The birth of a universe

The idea of the Big Bang continued to swirl in Stephen Hawking's mind. He would soon draw the conclusion that the Big Bang functions remarkably similar to the collapse of a black hole- just in the reverse.

Hawking began to further mold the idea with Roger Penrose. The two began to measure the radiation of the universe and piece together the information. By measuring different wavelengths compared to background radiation, it was discovered many galaxies emitted longer radiation waves than theory predicted. The effect is similar to the Doppler Effect. The Doppler Effect describes how as a car approaches, the sound wavelengths that come off of it are compressed, making a higher pitched noise. As it goes by, the wavelength expands leaving a lower pitched noise. The effect can be easily noted by listening to cars pass.

It then stood to reason that the universe must be acting the same way. The wavelengths of distant galaxies were traveling away from one another, drawing the conclusion that the universe must be expanding. It was from this idea that the two published a paper describing with general relativity that the universe must have begun as a singularity.

As he aged, Stephen Hawking's disability grew more severe. His disease progressed to the point where walking with crutches became a demanding task. However, it was as he struggled into bed one night that gave him an idea of sheer brilliance.

Black holes cannot shrink

It seems intuitive that black holes can only grow. Although, the idea has striking similarities to the idea of entropy, the measure of disorder in a system. Structurally sound objects, like crystals, have consistent crystal lattices, or low entropy. Gasses, on the other hand, move around sporadically- with high entropy.

Relating the idea back to the second law of thermodynamics reveals the entropy of the universe can only increase, not decrease. Essentially, the universe gets more disorderly the older it gets. The theory bears striking similarities to how black holes' surface areas increases and the overall increase of entropy of the universe.

The correlation is no accident. Building on the idea,  Jacob Bekenstein, a young physicist, suggested the size of the event horizon (the point at which no light can escape) may be a way to measure the black hole's entropy.

Although, the idea gave rise to an inherent paradox. An object with increasing entropy must be rising in temperature and must, therefore, radiate energy. Yet the notion of a black hole at the time described that nothing can escape their gravitational pull. The idea is perplexing and results in a paradox. How can a black whole gain energy and emit nothing? Hawking openly disputed the claim.

A quantifiable solution

Under the rules of the physics at the time, the theory remained in question. The physics describe a black hole in which absolutely nothing can escape. Hawking, out to prove that black holes cannot lose energy, ironically derived the opposite conclusion. Hawking merged the idea of general relativity and quantum theory which proved himself incorrect.

Unfortunately, uniting the two theories perfectly is intrinsically impossible (for the time being). General relativity suggests space is continuous and defined. An object will always simply be an object. Take into consideration a basketball, its position and speed (or its information) can be accurately mapped and predicted if given a push.

On the other hand, quantum theory brings about the notion that everything relies on probability and exists only in discrete portions. If a basketball were a quantum object, pushing the ball might make it roll straight ahead, but it could also randomly pop in and out of reality wherever it so wishes to be. The position can be accurately predicted, however, it is impossible to know with certainty where and how fast the ball is going. The more is known of one set of information, the less can be known of the other.

Virtual Particles

In the universe, the effect is noted as pairs of particles randomly pop in and out of existence. One is made of matter while the other is antimatter. One with positive energy and the other with negative, the energy level remains constant and no new energy is made. Almost as fast as the particles are made, they just as quickly annihilate one another, making them virtually impossible to detect- in other words, virtual particles. 

Hawking Radiation

Stephen Hawking's famous theory is derived from a peculiar phenomenon that arises near black holes. If a virtual particle comes into existence near the event horizon of a black hole, there is a small chance that one of the particles will be pulled in by the hole, abandoning the other in the midst of space. The now lone particle can escape and shoot off into space. If the black hole absorbs a negative-energy particle, the black hole loses energy. With that, an equivalent amount of mass is lost. In the reverse, if a positive particle is absorbed, the black hole's energy receives an increase of energy and mass.

Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius
A black hole radiates energy as it spins,Source: NASA

Theoretically, the idea suggests that virtual particles that rely on quantum mechanics create the connection to general relativity. Contradictory to what was originally thought, as it turns out, black holes can get smaller. By interacting with the quantum world, black holes can, in fact, radiate energy. The radiation is now known as Hawking Radiation.

Entropy and Black Holes

Elaborating on the theory, Stephen Hawking recalled the idea of the Big Bang. With his new profound theory, Hawking suggested that during the universe's infancy, some pieces of the universe would clump together and would collapse to form a miniature black hole. The black holes would weigh billions of tons, yet would be a fraction the size of a particle. The mass is seemingly large, however, in the scale of the universe, the portion is small, a fraction of what the Earth weighs.

With a small event horizon, the miniature black holes would be incredibly hot, as Hawking describes, "white hot". As the temperature increases so does Hawking Radiation, causing the small black holes to quickly radiate all their energy away until it disappears entirely.

A black hole will not go gracefully, though. Instead, as it shrinks, the event horizon decreases and its temperature ever rises in a vicious positive feedback cycle. Eventually, the black hole can no longer contain itself, causing it to explode with the energy of a million one-megaton hydrogen bombs.

What it means

Stephen Hawking's incredible discoveries are working to a unified goal- that is, the unified theory of everything. Hawking is working with other theoretical physicists to unlock the holy grail of physics. Once both quantum mechanics and general relativity are fused, humanity will be able to enter an entirely different realm- the realm of quantum phenomena. With it, time and interstellar travel will be entirely feasible. Though the mathematics cannot perfectly describe the universe, with the help of Stephen Hawking's legacy and other brilliant minds, perhaps one-day humanity will not be bound by classical mechanics.

Leading the Future: A Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Stephen Hawking's broad scope of space gave rise to a copious amount of intellectual breakthrough. His vision was no shorter than the edge of the universe. Intrigued by what lies in the unknown, in July of 2015, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, announced the most ambitious plan to search for a new type of answer. The question being, is there alien life?

Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius
Stephen Hawking in "zero gravity." Source: NASA

An extraterrestrial journey

The plan calls for the most comprehensive scan of the universe using the world's most advanced and sensitive scopes. The scan will be 50 times more sensitive and is set to cover 10 times the amount of sky that any search for extraterrestrial life. Currently, the mission is set to have an impressive $100 million budget. Perhaps more impressive yet is the commitment of scientists who will oversee the thousands of research hours booked at the most powerful observatories around the world. The mission aims to answer one of the world's most perplexing questions: Are we alone?

Astronomers, physicists, and scientists alike will be making use of the some of the most high-tech observatories around the world including; Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia (the largest steerable telescope on the planet), and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, along with the Lick Observatory in California. The scientists will also perform the most extensive optical laser transmissions search for beams originating from other planets.

The mission will oversee the surveyance of the closest 1 million stars in the Milky Way, as well as scan the nearest 100 galaxies. The search will take some time to complete, and significantly more time to review the results. The goal, however, remains of utmost importance. As Hawking said at the Royal Society convention,

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life."

Progressing Humanity into Space

The information could give humanity insight into our humble beginnings. It may also unlock the secrets that will oversee humanity advance into an unprecedented territory. Or, perhaps it will lead to the discovery of an advanced life-form, completely re-envisioning every aspect of science-as-we-know-it. Whatever lies on the horizon, Stephen Hawking wants to know for the greater good of humanity.

Without progressing into the nether regions of space, Hawking believes humanity is doomed on Earth.

“I believe that life on Earth is at an ever increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space.” —Stephen Hawking


Stephen Hawking’s message is bold. Though the inspiration he left today originates from the inspiration of his time, Albert Einstein. Often called “Einstein” in school, he quickly developed a high aptitude for quantitative and scientific subjects, specifically mathematics and physics. His interstellar interests, along with help from mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, led Hawking to work on the fundamental laws that govern the universe.

Using Einstein’s most popular theory, he derived a correlation between space and time. With that, he suggested there is a need for a beginning and an end. As his findings progressed, so has his discoveries and topics of conversations at his speeches. Many see Hawking in equal scientific value and fame as the man he once looked up to – and he did it using his own rules. Combining general relativity with quantum theory is one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the first half of the 20th century.

Stephen Hawking gave humanity the hope to progress and thrive throughout the next century.

A modern-day genius

Stephen Hawking was a loving father and grandfather to his offspring. His passion, however, remained in the sciences. Stephen Hawking continued to pursue research in theoretical physics. Although, at the same time, he continued to find new solutions and remedies for the disease that consistently challenged his unconventional life.

Holding the post as the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University since 1979, and as the owner of 12 honorary degrees, he was an example of the limits one can achieve when they continue to fight, regardless of the odds that stack up against success. Though he may have had many battles with depression, his own body and mind, his desire for a “theory of everything” always substantially surpassed his willingness to give up.

Stephen Hawking: A Legacy like no other

Stephen Hawking is considered to be one of the most influential theoretical physicists of all time. He consistently demonstrated the true ability of willingness and desire to overcome mental and physical boundaries. His legacy holds countless chapters of triumph and hardship that continues to inspire young minds to pursue the ever-expanding fields of science.

Despite having physical incapabilities with a life bound to his chair, it has helped shape his perspective and is what led him to become a hero among humanity. His philanthropic fights with his alma maters to include handicap accessibility has turned him into a hero in the ALS and other disability communities. His research and generous donations to ALS research continue to advance the race to the cure.

Though at a glance he may appear handicapped, Hawking does not believe he has a disability, but rather he is “a scientist first, popular science writer second, and in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams and ambitions as the next person.” —Stephen Hawking

Limited by nothing but the bounds of the universe

Though fate has confined him to a wheelchair and has stripped away his physical voice, Stephen Hawking's word could be heard from all around the world through his challenges, his success, and his genius. Challenged with a unique fate and a lifespan that was not supposed to exceed past 1965 - Stephen Hawking has become a role model and visionary for countless future scientists, theorists and aspiring children alike.

Sources: Hawking, BBC

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