On Stephen Hawking: Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do
In 2012, I got a weird look from one of my mentors when he realized that I knew next to nothing about Stephen Hawking. It is in semblance with the shock that greets you when “a passionate Nigerian writer” tells you that he has read many books except for Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart
My mentor instructed me to read “A Brief History of Time
,” and watch the movie. This was how I fell in love with the British physicist Stephen Hawking. I pounced on the Internet and read almost anything I could find about Hawking. I was inspired by his story of resilience and dedication to greatness. His life chronicled the journey of a tenacious scholar that was in love with the laws behind the wonders of nature. His struggles were obvious but his doggedness placed his name amidst the stars.
Hawking, a genius who devised a plethora of laws in theoretical physics except for the theory of immortality has died at 76. As tributes pour in ahead of his burial at Westminster Abbey, I would like us to draw strong reflections from a life with a fleet of remarkable feats.
I am not going to bore you with black hole theories and his thought-provoking discoveries in cosmology, I will only show you the trying moments of his life.
1. The Awakening of the Genius Gene
At the age of 17 in 1959, Hawking was admitted into the prestigious University College, Oxford to study Physics and Chemistry after he aced his scholarship exams. Winning a scholarship to study at Oxford was a turning point in Hawking’s life as he was nicknamed “Einstein” during his college days because of his academic struggles. He never started out as the genius we all read about today. He graduated with a first class and proceeded to the iconic University of Cambridge for his Masters and Ph.D. degrees.
In 1963 when Hawking was only 21, his doctors told him he had two more years to live. He was diagnosed with the motor neurone disease (aka amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, “ALS” or Lou Gehrig’s disease). The diagnosis came in while he was just starting out his graduate studies at Cambridge, he suffered a bit of depression but came out shining. His physical abilities deteriorated over the years, the paralysis ceased his ability to write, speak, and walk. He needed close friends and family members to convey his words to others but he frowned at been classified as a disabled person.
3. Face to Face With Death
Hawking’s life was threatened in 1985 when he contracted pneumonia while he was on a trip to Switzerland. He got so sick that he was on life support for days and his wife, Jane Hawking had to settle for a tracheotomy which led to the permanent loss of his voice. Walter Woltosz, CEO of Words Plus developed a computer program called the “Equalizer” that assisted Hawking in communicating his thoughts to others via spoken words. With his fingers, he could press a switch that selects words and phrases from a pool of about 3,000 words, This made him produce about 15 words per minute with a mechanical version of his original voice.
Publishing a book when you have lost the ability to speak or write is a tall order. He started writing his first book in 1982 with the help of his assistant and editor. The book explained some of the complex theories that govern the universe in simple terms that everyone could understand. In 1988, the book was published and it was titled, “A Brief History of Time.” It received massive media attention and was a great success. It has been translated into several languages and about 9 million copies sold. The book appeared on the British Sunday Times best-seller for a record-breaking 237 weeks. With the help of his children, he published many popular books later.
5. The Wonders of the Cheek Muscles
In the wake of his outstanding academic achievements and publication of his first book, his popularity soared, earning him more awards, international trips, and meetings with celebrities. Hawking’s paralysis got worse in 2005 when he lost the use of his hands, meaning he had to settle for another medium of communicating with his audience asides using his finger on a switch. He had to control his communicating device with the movement of his cheek muscles and produced at the rate of one word per minute.
“Go the extra mile. It makes your boss look like an incompetent slacker.” – Stephen Hawking
6. The Space Flight Experience
In an interview with BBC in 2006, Hawking spoke about one of his secret desires of traveling to space. Unfortunately, he never achieved his dream of traveling to space via commercial flight before his death but he got so close. In April 2007, Hawking experienced weightlessness on a specially-modified flight, replicating the gravitational forces astronauts go through in space flights.
7. Resting Amidst the Scholars
Interestingly, his final resting place at Westminster Abbey will be beside the graves of scholars like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. He died on the Pi Day, a day which coincides with the 139th anniversary of Einstein’s birth and he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
“I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,”
“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
Hawking’s Last Speech on Stage
In conclusion, this is an attempt to give a brief history of an erudite scholar that etched his name amidst the greats. This is the unveiling of a story that crushes all your excuses without mercy. In his death, he remains a genius in the books of many and a very controversial figure because of his unabashed atheistic views.
Also published on Medium.