Stephen Hawking Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Many consider Hawking to be the greatest physicist of the late twentieth century. His work combines the two primary developments of early twentieth century physics—general relativity and quantum mechanics—to explain the origins and structure of the universe.

Early Life

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, on the three hundredth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest physicists of all time, Galileo Galilei, who is generally credited with proving that the earth revolves around the sun. Hawking’s birth was also only four days after the three hundredth birthday of another great physicist, Isaac Newton, who developed a mathematical model to explain the structure of the universe that was essentially unchallenged for over two hundred years. Hawking was born in Oxford, England, where both of his parents had attended Oxford University. However, the Hawkings had only recently returned to Oxford to escape the likelihood of London being bombed during World War II.

Hawking’s father, Frank, was a physician who had the same ambition for his son. However, Hawking did not find medicine and biology theoretically rich enough and instead decided to major in physics at Oxford. By his own admission, Hawking averaged barely one hour per day of studying at Oxford and decided to concentrate on theoretical physics as a way to avoid the busy work of memorizing facts. After graduating from Oxford, Hawking had hoped to study at Cambridge University with Fred Hoyle, who had developed “steady-state” cosmology, which argues that the structure of the universe remains relatively constant over time. However, his acceptance to Cambridge was contingent upon his receiving honors from Oxford. Because of his lack of studying, his final examination scores at Oxford were only borderline for an honors degree. In an interview, he then told his examiners that if they gave him honors, he would go to Cambridge. Otherwise, he would stay at Oxford. They gave him honors.

Upon reaching Cambridge, Hawking was disappointed to learn that he would not study with Hoyle but Dennis Sciama, another steady-state cosmologist unfamiliar to Hawking. However, Sciama turned out to be much more available and open to students developing their own alternative perspectives than Hoyle would have been. Within a few months of arriving at Cambridge, Hawking faced a far more serious disappointment. Never robust or athletic, Hawking was becoming increasingly clumsy. At his mother’s insistence, he saw a doctor. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States), a degenerative condition causing the patient to gradually lose control of all muscles, including those necessary to move, gesture, speak, and swallow. Hawking was told he might only live another two years and underwent a deep depression as he contemplated the futility of trying to complete his doctorate. Sciama persuaded him to continue but refused to lower his standards. As his condition worsened, Hawking came to need a cane, then a wheelchair, and then an artificial speech synthesizer. However, he went on to survive for many years after he was diagnosed with a terminal condition.

Through Sciama, Hawking met Roger Penrose, a mathematician who had developed the idea of a “singularity,” a point at which the laws of mathematics and science break down. Hawking earned his doctorate by proposing that singularities could be used to understand the structure of the universe. He has since come to rethink the concept of singularity and argue that the laws of physics are continuous throughout the universe.

Life’s Work

Early in the twentieth century, Newton’s physics faced two challenges: relativity, conceived by Albert Einstein, and quantum mechanics, which had several founders. Although Einstein contributed to the development of quantum mechanics, he was uncomfortable with it. What most disturbed him was the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg, which suggests that not everything is knowable and measurable. Because Einstein’s relativity insists that everything can ultimately be determined, a position that it shared with Newtonian mechanics, Hawking calls it a “classical theory.” One implication of relativity that Einstein himself shunned was that large stars could collapse into black holes, single points with such overwhelming gravitational strength that nothing, including light, can escape. Penrose considered black holes to be singularities and thought that since they emitted no signals, they were unknowable by the laws of physics as scientists understood them.

In the 1920’s, astronomers began to believe that the universe was expanding. Hoyle’s steady-state cosmology was one model of an expanding universe. However, a rival cosmology emerged to account for the expanding...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)