Stephen Hawking

a brief history of time

Stephen Hawking (b. 1942) is an English theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose scientific books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity. He is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes (he first predicted that black holes emit radiation, which is today known as Hawking radiation).

He has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general. Hawking has a motor neurone disease that is related to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralyzed.

An early teacher of Hawking said of him, ‘It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it. […] He didn’t have very many books, and he didn’t take notes. Of course, his mind was completely different from all of his contemporaries.’

He graduated from Oxford in 1962, and not long after started developing the symptoms of his condition. Hawking’s achievements were made despite the increasing paralysis caused by the ALS. By 1974, he was unable to feed himself or get out of bed. His speech became slurred so that he could be understood only by people who knew him well. In 1985, he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy, which made him unable to speak at all. A Cambridge scientist built a device that enables Hawking to write onto a computer with small movements of his body, and then have a voice synthesizer speak what he has typed.

In Hawking’s many media appearances, he appears to speak fluently through his synthesizer, but in reality, it is a tedious drawn-out process. Hawking’s setup uses a predictive text entry system, which requires only the first few characters in order to auto-complete the word, but as he is only able to use his cheek for data entry, constructing complete sentences takes time. His speeches are prepared in advance, but having a live conversation with him provides insight as to the complexity and work involved. During a TED Conference talk, it took him seven minutes to answer a question

He describes himself as lucky despite his disease. Its slow progression has allowed him time to make influential discoveries and has not hindered him from having, in his own words, ‘a very attractive family.’ When his wife, Jane, was asked why she decided to marry a man with a three-year life expectancy, she responded, ‘Those were the days of atomic gloom and doom, so we all had a rather short life expectancy.’

Hawking has indicated that he is almost certain that alien life exists in other parts of the universe and uses a mathematical basis for his assumptions. ‘To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.’ He believes alien life not only certainly exists on planets but perhaps even in other places, like within stars or even floating in outer space.

He also warns that a few of these species might be intelligent and threaten Earth. Contact with such species might be devastating for humanity. ‘If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,’ he said. He advocated that, rather than try to establish contact, man should try to avoid contact with alien life forms.

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