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Stephen Hawking: Life of a Person Who Wanted to Find Universal Truth

Photograph of Stephen Hawking
Alokita | May 18, 2017 (Last update: November 13, 2020)

Alokita is a Polio Survivor. She overcame her disability and went on to become a commerce graduate. Alokita writes about disability issues and her appetite for learning new things is far from satiated.

“If one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well”

This is not only a quote but it was also the mantra of the life of Stephen hawking, one of the most eminent scientists on Earth. Technically he was a “theoretical physicist” but he gave us many practical approaches towards life too. It is only his psychological ability that gave him the power to reach the heights that is an unachievable dream for almost everybody. Even more important thing is that he achieved that height with a completely non-functional body. He used to say that one should focus on his ability and do a work in which his disability does not prove a roadblock. And he practiced this by using his brain which was not affected by his disability caused by a diseased called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Although Stephen Hawking was born on 8th of January 1942 but the real Stephen that we know today came into existence after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling disease that rapidly kills those neurons which controls the voluntary muscles of the body.

When he came know…

Stephen was devastated after hearing the news that he has been affected by a disease that would kill him within two years. Neither he nor his father had imagined that life is going to turn in such an awkward way. It is not common for a 21 year old gentleman to fall abruptly without any reason as Stephen had fallen that day in his college campus. And then he was taken to hospital by his father, Frank Hawking.

During his two week stay at the hospital he had to share room with a boy who was suffering from leukaemia. Stephen’s comparative analysis ability told him that his situation was much more tolerable than the other boy. After being discharged from the hospital he recalled vividly that he had a dream… he was going to be assassinated! The dream and doctor’s prediction together gave him a feeling that he was going to die soon. And that was the day he realized that he wanted to do many things before departing from the planet.

Where there is a will…

One of the most important things that lured Stephen to want to live was “love”. It had roughly been a month since he met Jane Wilde, his love of life, at the New Year party. Stephen never liked to discuss anything about his disease and this maybe the reason he didn’t tell Jane anything about it. But she eventually came to know the fact through a common friend. Jane who was mesmerized with Stephen’s broad smile, deep eyes and humorous nature decided to stick with him even after learning about his disease.

Photograph of Stephen Hawking

Stephen was told by his doctor that he had only two years time. So, he wanted to do whatever was possible in that short span of time. Literally, he wanted to live his whole life in those two years. On one hand he was escalating in courtship with Jane and on the other side he had drowned himself completely into his studies. The boy who used to study for an average of one hour a day during his college was now devoting maximum time of his day-to-day studies. He was desperate to earn his PhD before death engulfs him. His deteriorating physical state gave him worries but then Jane was always with him like a backbone that would never let him down. They both even married in 1965 with a hope of having a happy family (and with the fear seeded in their mind by the doctors).

There is a way…

Much later Stephen told in an interview that his first wife, Jane Wilde, was the one who saved him from depression.

Although slower than doctor’s expectations, but Stephen’s physical state was deteriorating. Initially he was reluctant to accept his physical condition and would struggle hard to maintain his physical ability at a better level. Jane wrote in her memoir that walking had become almost impossible for Stephen and she struggled convincing him to use a wheelchair. Stephen preferred to slouch on her shoulder and go to places. It was difficult for her as at that time they already had 2 children, Robert and Lucy.

Despite his physical struggles he had molded himself completely with his deteriorating condition mentally. He trained himself to do every calculation and theorizing in his mind without using a pen or paper. His mental ability got him his share of limelight during a Royal Society meeting where he interrupted the renowned astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle by correcting his mistake. He had worked up the complete theory mentally and this impressed everybody present there. This was a really proud moment for Stephen as he dreamt to do his PhD under Sir Fred Hoyle rather than Dennis Sciama whom he got as his Doctoral advisor.

Becoming of a great scientist

Later in his life Stephen became more positive about his disability. He said that his disability had never been a hindrance in his career as he works only with theory. His disabilities have rather proved beneficial by shielding him from lecturing and doing administrative works. As his disability didn’t allow him to take any responsibilities of home either, he got the whole time to dedicate on physics and cosmology. He was so much dedicated to physics that Jane said physics is his goddess. She recalled that there were many weekends when Stephen would sit quietly like an idol in his chair and would not notice her or the children. She would get anxious about his physical condition as she knew Stephen would not tell her if he was in pain or something like that. Stephen would then suddenly announce on Monday that he has solved that equation which he was calculating mentally over the weekend.

His gradually deteriorating physical condition did not only make him immobile but even robbed of his ability to speak. It was 1985 when Stephen’s physical state deteriorated so much that he needed a round-the-clock help. He underwent tracheotomy due to the severe pneumonia that almost killed him. That surgery snatched his speaking ability. Losing the ability to express himself was the condition that was worse than death for Stephen.

But science and technology came to the rescue of great scientist.

A computer programmer from California presented him the speaking programme that he had developed. The programme was designed to be operated with head or eye movement. Till the time Stephen’s finger were functional he used a handheld clicker to select words from screen. But later he used one of his cheek muscles to direct a sensor to choose words from computer screen. The selected words are then passed through a speech synthesiser. Then a robotic voice pronounces the words so that others could understand what Stephen was saying. Stephen was able to speak 15 words per minute through his robotic voice.

Among a long list of awards that Stephen got for his contribution to science is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in US, that he was given in 2009.

Stephen believed in making science accessible for all. He wanted everybody to understand the complex theories of science. And so he tried to explain those complex theories in simple language that a layman could also understand. He wrote a series of books to make science easily understandable to everybody. One of his books, A Brief History of Time, got particularly popular among general public. It got more than a million pre-booking orders. Almost all his books have a great shelf life in the section of most popular books.

Stephen believed that children should be exposed to science from a very young age so that they can develop interest in science rather than religion. In one of his interview he was quoted saying:

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.”

With a view to make science interesting for children and boosting their curiosity Stephen co-authored a series of science fiction for children that tells a story of a boy ‘George’ who has various adventures with science. The books in the series were George’s secret key to universe, George and the blue moon, George and the unbreakable code, George and the big bang and George’s cosmic treasure hunt. Stephen was one of those scientists who did not stay confined in his intellectual shell but came out and down to the level of a kid’s understanding power.

Stephen had predicted end of humanity due to global warming or genetically engineered killer bacteria or due to the impact of a large comet. He believed that there is no supreme power as god and science can explain every theory of evolution that has nothing to do with any supernatural power. He believed that there are lives on other planet but he never wanted the aliens to visit earth as it would not be a good visit for earth.

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