Stephen Hawking; the
world's finest mind
Doctors said he would die before he was 25. But
British physicist Stephen Hawking, subject of the
award-winning 2014 movie The
Theory of Everything is still alive in 2015, and still
working - at the age of 73 - at the University of Cambridge, where he
has spent most of his life. This text is updated from a
portrait of Stephen Hawking first published by Linguapress in 2001.
Hawking at the 50th anniversary of NASA in 2008
A few years ago, the description of an episode of
the American cult TV cartoon show The
went as follows: "The world's smartest man saves
the daughter of the world's dumbest man!"
The dumbest man was of course Homer Simpson; the smartest man, making a
guest-star appearance in his favourite cartoon show, was Stephen
Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University,
Many people would agree with the
producers of The Simpsons that Hawking, one of the most eminent
in the world, has indeed the most brilliant mind
of any living
person today; yet it is a bitter irony that such a brilliant mind
should be housed in a visibly disabled
There are a lot of people who would very
much like to know how Hawking can manage to be such a great scientist,
while being incapacitated by "motor neurone disease", which not only
leaves him confined to a wheelchair, but also means that he cannot
speak without the aid of a voice-synthesizing computer. Though it is a
question that no interviewer has ever dared to ask Professor Hawking,
Hawking's answer can be imagined; clearly, there is no necessary correlation
"My body may be stuck in a chair," he
has said, "But my mind can go to the ends of the universe."
Stephen was born in Oxford, the son of a
specialist in tropical medicine, and naturally perhaps, given the
circumstances, he became interested in science at a very young age. By
the time he was 15, he had decided to become a physicist, because
physics, as he said, was the most fundamental of the sciences.
After three years at Oxford University,
when, as he himself admits, he did not work very hard, Hawking got a
first class degree
in natural sciences; he then moved on to do postgraduate
in cosmology at the university of Cambridge. He seemed to be destined
to a brilliant future.
However it was at this point that
doctors diagnosed Stephen as suffering from motor neurone disease, a crippling
that usually leads rapidly to death. Doctors could see no reason why he
would be any different from other sufferers, and he was told that he
had little hope of living beyond the age of 25; it looked as if the
finest mind of his generation was about to be snuffed out
This was not to be the case. Hawking is
now (2015) seventy-three years old, and still working at the University
of Cambridge - living proof, is such were needed, of the power of mind over
all the odds
, Hawking completed his doctorate at
Cambridge, then went on to a research post, firstly in the Institute of
Astronomy, and then in the Department of Applied Mathematics and
In 1974, at the age of 32, he had the
great honour of being made a fellow
of the Royal Society, Britain's oldest and most prestigious scientific
association whose past presidents have included Newton, Lister and many
other great names. When Hawking was inducted
into the Society, the centuries-old induction ceremony, whereby
come on stage to sign the historic ledger
was changed for the first time. In Hawking's case, it was the president
of the Society, Sir Alan Hodgkin, who brought the ledger to him.
As well as the prestige of being a Fellow of the Royal Society
Hawking has won a whole string
of international prizes, including the Albert Einstein Award in 1978,
and has received honorary doctorates from 12 universities.
Even though he is frequently referred to
as the cleverest man on earth, in spite of his high profile, he is a
man who is very much in
ordinary people. At Cambridge university, his
professorship does not require him to teach classes or supervise
students - but he insists on doing both. And students who have the
great fortune to study under him know that they have a professor who
can communicate on their level.
As well as being a professor, Hawking is
also a best-selling author, whose "Brief History of Time", written in
1988, is probably the most widely-read scientific book of all time. In
it he managed to put over his thoughts about such esoteric concepts as
time, gravity, relativity and the origin of the universe, in a style
and a language that any educated person could understand.
Besides making a guest appearance in an
episode of the Simpsons
Hawking also played himself in Episode 252 (Descent) of Star Trek; the Next Generation,
a series of which he is - perhaps rather naturally - a great fan! The
episode showed him playing a game of poker in the Holodeck, with Data,
Einstein and Newton.
Apart from that, Hawking enjoys Formula
One racing, classical music and also pop - a clear sign perhaps that
great minds are not people with narrow interests. Perhaps that's why
Hawking chose the universe as his field of study.
relationship - crippling: disabling, incapacitating - degree: university diploma - disabled
handicapped - eminent: highly respected - fellow: member - inducted: received, welcomed - ledger: book of names, of official
records - mind : brain - postgraduate: higher level - string: collection, succession - whereby: in which, by which.
2015 from an article originally published in Spectrum magazine,
2001. © Linguapress 2001-2016
Explain the following expressions in your own words:
the power of mind over matter
Against all the odds
In touch with
Missing endings exercise : jump to this on-screen gap-fill exercise
resource is ©
copyright Linguapress 1998 - 2015
Originally published in Spectrum magazine.