Stephen Hawking Introduction - Essay


Stephen Hawking 1942–

(Full name Stephen William Hawking) English cosmologist, mathematician, author, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Hawking's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 63.

Hawking is considered one of the most influential and important theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. His theories on black holes and his search for a grand unification theory, which would link the theories of relativity with those of quantum mechanics, have propelled him into the scientific ranks of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. He has attracted widespread public interest through his best-selling work A Brief History of Time (1988).

Biographical Information

Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. His father was a research scientist specializing in tropical diseases and his mother was a secretary; Hawking was the first of four children. He received a first-class honors degree from Oxford in 1962 and proceeded to Cambridge University to pursue graduate studies in cosmology. In 1965, he completed his dissertation on black holes and received his Ph.D. He received a fellowship in theoretical physics at Cambridge and continued his work on black holes. At the age of thirty-two, Hawking was named a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1978 he received the Albert Einstein award of the Lewis and Rose Strauss Memorial Fund, the most prestigious award in theoretical physics. The next year he was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position he continues to hold and one which was once occupied by Newton. While a student, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a degenerative disease of the nerve cells that control muscular movement. Hawking eventually became unable to move except for his fingers, and in the early 1980s he also lost the ability to speak; he now communicates with the aid of a talking computer. Hawking married linguist Jane Wilde in 1965; the two later divorced and he has since remarried. Hawking has three children from his first marriage.

Major Works

Hawking first gained recognition for his doctoral thesis concerning black holes, on which he collaborated with Roger Penrose, a mathematician. Hawking and Penrose demonstrated the validity of black holes, which scientists had previously been reluctant to acknowledge due to a lack of empirical evidence or mathematical proof. Hawking later suggested that some subatomic particles and radiation could escape from a black hole, summarized in his famous statement, "black holes ain't so black." In his most popular work, A Brief History of Time, which reached the best-seller list in both America and Britain, Hawking related the discoveries and implications of his lifetime of work. Written for the layman, A Brief History of Time offers a survey of historical and modern developments in physics, addresses various cosmological theories, and relates Hawking's quest for the unification of physics. Hawking followed A Brief History of Time with Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993), a collection of essays and speeches which provide an overview of his scholarship as well as insight into his physical disability. The Nature of Space and Time (1996), which explores general relativity quantization, is drawn from a series of lectures Hawking and Penrose presented in Cambridge in 1994.

Critical Reception

Most of Hawking's writings are highly technical and understandable only to a small, highly specialized audience. Accordingly, general-readership reviewers have reacted most strongly to his works aimed at a popular audience. A Brief History of Time has been widely acclaimed as a clear, informative, and entertaining introduction to complex ideas that have significantly challenged traditional scientific and metaphysical views of the cosmos. Jeremy Bernstin stated, "The most original parts of Hawking's book consist of the descriptions of his own work. Since this has been of such great importance in modern cosmological theory, and since he describes it so lucidly, this gives the general reader an opportunity to learn some deep science directly from the scientist." Hawking's overall scholarship and theories also receive praise from his peers, but some debate certain elements of his work. Some philosophers have criticized Hawking's cosmology—his interpretations of the impact that his scientific theories have on religion and the origins of the universe. John Leslie defended A Brief History of Time, arguing that "the book's central ideas made it of greater philosophical interest than almost all the volumes ever written by philosophers," but conceded that Hawking's arguments "are highly oracular." Michael Rowan-Robinson, however, said of The Nature of Time and Space, "This elegant little volume provides a clear account of two approaches to some of the greatest unsolved problems of gravitation and cosmology."