Happy birthday Stephen Hawking!

Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy in 2008 at NASA's 50th anniversary (Image NASA/Paul Alers)
Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy in 2008 at NASA's 50th anniversary (Image NASA/Paul Alers)

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxford, England.

Stephen Hawking has been interested in science since his childhood. At Oxford University he majored in physics in 1962 and after graduation he studied astronomy. When he realized that he was more interested in theoretical research than actual astronomical observation, Hawking moved to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied theoretical astronomy and cosmology.

Already at that time Stephen Hawking had experienced early motor problems and at Cambridge he underwent medical examinations that led to the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Despite his growing health problems, Stephen Hawking married Jane Wilde, with whom he had three children, and managed to achieve a Ph.D. at Cambridge.

From the late ’60s, Stephen Hawking has been working on the most important problems in physics and astrophysics along with other important scientists such as Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne. He’s become particularly famous for his research on blacks holes but he worked on various problems related to a unified theory that brings together relativity and quantum physics.

In 1979 he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a position he held for thirty years until his retirement.

In 1985 Stephen Hawking caught pneumonia and a tracheotomy had to be practiced. Because of his motor degeneration, he had already trouble speaking in a comprehensible way, after the tracheotomy he was left totally unable to speak. A Cambridge scientist built a device that allowed Hawking to write using a computer what he wanted to say and a speech synthesizer which pronounced the sentences he wrote. This equipment was perfected over the years and his synthetic voice has become one of Stephen Hawking’s easily recognizable characteristics.

In 1988 the essay “A Brief History of Time” was published, which increased Stephen Hawking’s fame even outside of science. In his personal life, however, there was the separation from his first wife in 1991 and in 1995 he married his nurse Elaine Manson, a marriage that lasted until 2006.

Over the years Stephen Hawking has written other scientific essays and he also starred in several documentaries. In some of them he also expressed some positions towards religion stating that he doesn’t believe in a personal God and explaining why the universe may have created itself from nothing. One of his most explicit statement is: “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.”.

Stephen Hawking is also a strong advocate of space travel because he believes that human species has a future only if it expands beyond the Earth, where now there are too many dangers of extinction due to natural disasters or world wars.

Stephen Hawking has also had cameos in various television shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Red Dwarf” but also in cartoons such as “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” as well as being mentioned in many other TV shows, movies, novels and even songs. In various ways he’s become an icon of popular culture easily recognizable even to those unfamiliar with science.

Stephen Hawking is officially retired since 2009, but he continues his studies at Cambridge University so don’t be surprised if he can still contribute to scientific progress.

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