Monday, November 27, 2006


BERKELEY, CA - MARCH 13:  Physicist Professor ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
The placard 'Quiet Please, The Boss Is Asleed', outside the office of Stephen Hawking- the Commander of British Empire, the most brilliant theoretical Physicist since Einstein with 13 International Awards and 11 honorary Doctorates- is a bit out of place. He is a man, known as much for his theoretical Physics and courage as his wit. Unable to walk, write or speak, he has leaped beyond universe.

Hawking was born on Jan 4, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. By the time he was eight he was seriously thinking of becoming a scientist. And at fourteen, despite his father's love for medicine, he wanted to do Mathematics, more Mathematics and Physics.

Hawking's family lacked material possessions but one thing they had plenty - the books. The family was odd. When their friends were invited to tea in the house, they would find entire family with their heads buried in books over dinner table. They spoke strangely: the children spoke so quickly so as to stumble over the words and father Frank stuttered. It was named Hawkingenese.

He was ordinary as a child. So ordinary was he that one of his friends bet the other a packet of chocolate in case he ever came to do anything. He went to Oxford at seventeen. There he is remembered as a student who liked finding mistakes in the textbooks rather than solving the problems.

Hawking wanted to be a theoretical physicist and chose cosmology. He applied for a PhD at Cambridge, since Fred Hoyle, the most famous British astronomer was there. The Cambridge University put a condition. He should get a first from Oxford. Hawking did not do well in his exams. He was on the borderline between the first and the second. The examiners called him for a personal interview and questioned him about his plans. He reputed to have said,
‘If I get a first I shall go to Cambridge. If I receive a second I will remain at Oxford. So I will expect that you will give me a first.’
Needless to say he went to Cambridge. Though, his physics tutor later told the New York Times

At 21 Hawking contracted a rare disease, with no cure; motor neurone disease. It causes gradual disintegration of cells in the spinal cord and brain that regulate voluntary muscle activity. Speech and movement are its first casualties; and death, in two to three years. Today he is alive and is fifty years old. Is he lucky or is it his determination? You can take your pick. Hawking says when he came to know at 21 that he would die so soon he realised the worth- the value of life.

It was about the same time that he fell in love. It was not possible to marry unless he had a job and no job was possible until he had a PhD. Hawking had read about a theory of Roger Penrose1 concerning what happens to a Star when it dies. It collapses into a black hole. Penrose had improved the work of Subrahmanayam Chandrashekhar2 . Hawking took a reverse direction. Suppose, space, time and the entire mass was concentrated at a point. Imagine a point singularity- and it exploded- what we call the big bang- expanded into what it looks like today. He worked hard on the idea and according to him he was surprised to find that he liked it.

Hawking was made fellow of the Royal Society at 32. A new member has to walk up to the podium to sign the register. But they broke the tradition this time. Sir Alan Hodgkin, Nobel Prize winner in biology, president of the society walked down to Hawking. For Hawking could not walk. He had long started using a wheelchair. He could still write, but with great difficulty. He took a long time to write his own name.

Hawking had lost his speech but could make sounds, which few could understand. He used to communicate with that. Soon this was to leave him. He contracted pneumonia. Only the removal of his windpipe saved his life. He no longer breathed through his nose or mouth but through a small permanent opening made in his throat. He became incapable of speech. He now cannot communicate except through the special computer program operated by fine movements of his fingers and the speech synthesiser fitted onto his wheelchair.

In 1982 he wanted money to send his daughter to a school. He wrote a popular book, ‘A brief History of time ... from big bang to black holes’. The book deals with philosophical questions like: Where did the universe come from: How and why did it begin: Will it come to an end: Is there a complete theory of the universe and everything in it: Is there a need for God and non philosophical question: What made him study cosmology and quantum theory? It is an all time best seller. It sold 8 million copies since its publication in 1988.

The books Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Every thing by Kity Ferguson; published by Bantam Books and Stephen Hawking A Life In Science by Michael White & John Gribbin; published by Penguins are enjoyable to read. They talk about the personal life of Hawking, his courage, his determination and of course, his separation from his wife. It is said solving equations for Hawking is as strenuous as it would be for Mozart to mentally composing a symphony. One can only imagine his courage and determination.

Everything about him leaves one surprised even the life size portrait of Marilyn Monroe that hangs on the door of his office.

1 Roger Penrose is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He shared the 1988 Wolf Prize for Physics with Hawking. His book `The Emperor's new mind concerning computers, minds and the laws of Physics' published by Vintage two years ago was a best seller. The book tries to show that everything is not a digital. The conscious mind does not function like one. And in this process he takes a journey through modern Physics, Cosmology, Mathematics and Philosophy. The book is interesting to read and is a must for a university student.

2 Subrahmanyam Chandrashekhar is an Indian living in Chicago. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on black holes. `CHANDRA' an interesting biography about him has been published by Viking.
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