Few people emerge from the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics with the sort of name recognition equal to that of a celebrity athlete or actor, but that's exactly what's happened with Stephen Hawking. Thanks to his groundbreaking work with black holes and relativity, he's gone on to hold distinguished academic posts, be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and earn the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. . .all while his body deteriorates from a crippling disease that was supposed to have killed him 40 years ago. Set to celebrate his 74th birthday on this planet, here are seven facts about the life of this otherworldly scientist:
The Mediocre Student
Hawking didn’t have the sort of sparkling early academic career you'd expect from a Grade-A genius. He claims he didn't learn to properly read until he was 8 years old, and his grades never surpassed the average scores of his classmates at St. Albans School. Of course, there was a reason those same classmates nicknamed him "Einstein"; Hawking built a computer with friends as a teenager, and demonstrated a tremendous capacity for grasping issues of space and time. He also got it together when it counted, dominating his Oxford entrance exams to score a scholarship to study physics at age 17.
After falling while ice skating during his first year as a grad student at Cambridge University, Hawking was told he he had the degenerative motor neuron disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and had only 2 1/2 years to live. Obviously that prognosis was light years off, but it seems early onset of the disease was a blessing in disguise, of sorts. Most ALS patients are diagnosed in their mid-50s and live another two to five years, but those diagnosed earlier tend to have a slower-progressing form of the disease. Furthermore, the loss of motor skills forced the burgeoning cosmologist to become more creative. "By losing the finer dexterity of my hands, I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind and try to visualize the ways in which it worked," he later noted.
While it’s impossible to sum up Hawking's life in one word, it can be done with one equation:
This formula, which involves the speed of light (c), Newton’s constant (G) and other symbols that make the non-mathematically inclined run for cover, measures emissions from black holes that today is known as Hawking radiation. Hawking was initially puzzled by these findings, as he believed black holes to be celestial death traps that swallowed up all energy. However, he determined there was room for this phenomenon through the merging of quantum theory, general relativity and thermodynamics, distilling it all into one (relatively) simple but elegant formula in 1974. Already known for establishing important ground rules about the properties of black holes, this discovery kicked his career into a higher gear and set him on the path to stardom. Hawking has since said he would like this equation to be carved on his tombstone.
Although the doomsday predictions of his early doctors were off, Hawking did almost die after contracting pneumonia while traveling to Geneva in 1985. While he was unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, the option of removing the fragile scientist from life support was being considered until his then-wife, Jane, rejected the idea. Hawking instead underwent a tracheotomy, an operation that helped him breathe but permanently took away his ability to speak, prompting the creation of his famous speech synthesizer.
Hawking's original synthesizer was created by a California-based company called Words Plus, which ran a speech program called Equalizer on an Apple II computer. Adapted to a portable system that could be mounted on a wheelchair, the program enabled Hawking to "speak" by using a hand clicker to choose words on a screen. No longer able to use his hands, Hawking now has an infrared switch mounted on his glasses that generates words by detecting cheek movement. He also recently had the communication technology overhauled by Intel, though he insisted on retaining the same robotic voice with its distinctly non-British accent he's been using for nearly three decades, as he considers it an indelible part of his identity.
Hawking long believed he could write a book about the mysteries of the universe that would connect with the public, a task that seemed all but impossible after he lost the abilities to write and speak. However, he painstakingly pressed forward with his speech synthesizer, receiving valuable assistance from students who relayed draft revisions with his editor in the U.S. via speakerphone. Hawking's vision ultimately was realized, as A Brief History of Time landed on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks after its publication in 1988. It also apparently convinced him that writing a book was no more difficult than breezing through the Sunday funnies, as he went on to pen his biography, several other books about his field and a series of science-themed novels, co-written with his daughter, Lucy.
Despite his extraordinary physical challenges, Hawking hasn't been shy about appearing on television. He first appeared as himself on a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, cracking jokes while playing poker with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. He also lent his voice to the animated shows The Simpsons and Futurama, and, fittingly, has surfaced on the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Of course, screen time hasn’t only been about laughs for the world-renowned physicist, who returned to his bread-and-butter topics of cosmology and the origins of life for his six-part 1997 miniseries Stephen Hawking's Universe. He also provided plenty of stark, sobering descriptions of his life for the 2013 documentary Hawking.