Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the man whose brain transcended disability, was one of science’s brightest stars

Stephen Hawking was given only a few years to live when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1964, but defied the medical profession in typically stubborn fashion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 6:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 11:15pm

In his final years, the only thing connecting the brilliant physicist to the outside world was a couple of inches of frayed nerve in his cheek.

As slowly as a word per minute, Stephen Hawking used the twitching of the muscle under his right eye to grind out his thoughts on a custom-built computer, painstakingly outlining his vision of time, the universe, and humanity’s place within it.

What he produced was a masterwork of popular science, one that guided a generation of enthusiasts through the esoteric world of anti-particles, quarks, and quantum theory.

His success in turn transformed him into a massively popular scientist, one as familiar to the wider world through his appearances on The Simpsons and Star Trek as his work on cosmology and black holes.

Hawking owed one part of his fame to his triumph over amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative disease that eats away at the nervous system. When he was diagnosed aged only 21, he was given only a few years to live.

But Hawking defied the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years, pursuing a brilliant career that stunned doctors and thrilled his fans.

“I have lived five decades longer than doctors predicted. I have tried to make good use of my time,” he said in 2013 autobiographical documentary Hawking.

“Because every day could be my last, I have the desire to make the most of each and every minute,” he added.

His struggle was portrayed in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, which won an Oscar and Golden Globes.

But it was through scientific articles and his 1988 international bestseller A Brief History of Time that Hawking was able to communicate his genius and share his discoveries about black holes.

Hawking was an undisputed heavyweight in his field, holding the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics professorship at the University of Cambridge between 1978 and 2009, a post once held by Isaac Newton, the father of universal gravity.

In recent years, he enthusiastically adopted social media to spread his scientific research, responding to fans with messages signed off “SH”.

He boasted 4.1 million Facebook followers, nearly 30,000 on Twitter and amassed millions of followers within hours when he signed up to Chinese social media platform Weibo.

To celebrate turning 60, he satisfied a lifelong ambition and travelled in a specially created hot air balloon.

He narrated a major segment of the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games in August 2012, the year he turned 70.

“I have had a full and satisfying life,” he said in his memoir.

Hawking credited the support of his family and friends with giving him the strength to keep up his remarkable pace.

“I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students,” he said.

As news broke of his death, Hawking’s philosophical musings became particularly poignant.

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals,” he once said.

“Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.

“We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking.

“With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press