(Lisa Kaaki) - Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most brilliant physicists, is well-known for his 50-year battle against the incurable motor neurone disease
. Once given only two years to live, he has beaten the odds. He is believed to be the longest living sufferer known to medical science.
“How To Think Like Stephen Hawking” by author Daniel Smith is the fascinating story of a constant struggle of mind over body.
Hawking showed no signs of his genius when he was a child. In fact, he believed his sister Mary was far brighter than he was. She could read by the age of four while he mastered reading when he was eight.
Hawking lived in a liberal atmosphere. Both his parents promoted alternative ways of thinking and embraced a bohemian lifestyle. They enjoyed spending their holidays in a caravan they kept near the coastal resort of Weymouth. They also traveled across Europe and Asia in an old London black cab.
While he was growing up, Hawking was extremely interested in creating working models.
“Another of his hobbies was to invent board games, many of which were extraordinarily complicated. A war game required a board containing several thousand squares. In such ways, Hawking was creating mini universes that he was able to fully know and bring under his control. In other words, he was practicing on a small scale for what would become his life’s work,” writes Smith.
Old school friends
Over time he became a key member in a group of school friends passionate about science and was nicknamed “Einstein”.
Although he did very well at the Oxford University entrance exam, achieving a score of over 90 percent, he hardly studied. He calculated that he never worked more than an hour a day. But there were times when he could prove how brilliant he was. On one occasion, his tutor, Dr. Robert Berman, assigned Hawking and three fellow students a series of 13 tricky problems. After a period of two weeks, his friends only managed to solve one or two each while Hawking studied the problems the same day and found the solution to nine problems.
Then something remarkable happened. Hawking became suddenly serious and began studying. The change in his behavior happened at the time he met his future wife, Jane Wilde. A month later, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Hawking told Nathan Myhrvold (who collaborated with him before making his fortune by selling his computer business to Bill Gates) that his illness helped him concentrate on the important things and most of all, it left him with lots of free time to think.
In a 2011 interview with Claudia Dreifus for The New York Times, Hawking said: “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on doing things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Hawking has managed to keep a remarkable sense of humor throughout his life. In “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking,” the biography she wrote about her life with her husband, his first wife Jane Wilde wrote: “He had beautiful eyes and this amazing sense of humor, we were always laughing.”
An active mind
Hawking believes that keeping an active mind and maintaining a sense of humor has played a vital role in his survival. One of his former nurses remembers what happened when she went to see Hawking for a job interview. She had spent many hours preparing herself for the interview. Yet the day she met Hawking, he asked her a single question: “Can you poach an egg?” She answered: “Yes” and was immediately given the job.
This exchange took her off-guard but it definitely broke the ice.
Hawking has always considered his personal needs a priority.
“His achievements, extraordinary as they are, would have been utterly impossible if he had not sought out support whenever it was available. This is most clearly seen in his willingness to utilize the latest technology in order to make daily living easier, from the computer adapted to his wheelchair that allows him to work electronic devices to the voice synthesizer that has helped define his public persona.”
His synthesized voice has become so much associated with his public figure that he has so far refused to change the sound of his voice and give it a more human tone.
He became a celebrity with the publication of “A Brief History of Time” in 1988. Hawking never expected the book would do so well. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 147 weeks and in the UK it stayed in The Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has sold in the millions.
Stephen Hawking’s fame however took him away from his family and his daughter Lucy, in a 2014 interview with Vanity Fair, said rather bluntly: “The whole of my early life I looked after him, when he wasn’t rich and he wasn’t famous, and we all did because we loved him. And the minute he got fame and money he was gone.”
By the late 1980s his marriage had broken down. Jane and Stephen divorced in 1991. In Jane’s words, her husband had become an “all-powerful emperor” but long before he reached that point, she admitted “there were four partners in the marriage, Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics” adding that Mrs. Einstein cited physics as a reason for her divorce.
Hawking has received numerous awards like the Albert Einstein Award, the Dirac Prize and the Fundamental Physics Prize. He was also elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society when still in his 30s. He also joined the prestigious list of Cambridge’s Lucasian Professors of Mathematics. He held the post for 30 years until he retired aged 67 according to the tradition. He became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982 and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US. But one prize has eluded him — the Nobel Prize. And in Stephen Hawking’s words: “I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emission from black holes is correct though it has not so far earned me a Nobel Prize because it is very difficult to verify experimentally.”
Hawking is to this day the most famous physicist in the world. He has an innate ability to explain difficult scientific theories in a layman’s language. Judy Bachrach, in an article she wrote for Vanity Fair, acknowledged that Hawking’s success was due to his gift for personalizing infinity.
Hawking has collaborated on a number of scientific documentaries. In 2008 a short series, entitled “Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe,” was watched by two million viewers, a figure undreamed of for most science documentaries. He has also been the subject of several biographical documentaries. More recently he was the subject of the Oscar-nominated movie, “The Theory of Everything,” a biopic released in 2014.
When Hawking saw the film he said he would have liked more science and less emotion while his ex-wife, Jane wanted the exact opposite: More emotion and less science.
Hawking is the most recognized disabled person in the world yet his handicap has never prevented him from achieving his aim: “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
“How to Think Like Stephen Hawking” is a truly captivating book.
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