Stephen Hawking: Theory, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest physicists of our time. His work with cosmology and black holes has led to several new discoveries and theories about the nature of existence. This lesson will cover his life and theories.

How Did the Universe Begin?

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how the universe began or how it might end? Growing up in England, a young scientist named Stephen Hawking wondered about that too. Born in 1942 in Oxford, Stephen Hawking would grow up to not only solve the mystery of how the universe began, but also become a very famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist who was often described as the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He once said, 'My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.'

In his long and extremely productive career, Hawking was awarded twelve honorary degrees, named as a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences, wrote many books, and became famous throughout the world for his tremendous intellect and great personality.

Making his accomplishments even more impressive, he did all these things while suffering from a crippling degenerative neurological condition called Motor Neuron Disease that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair for over fifty years.

Stephen Hawking

Early Life and School

Although he was always highly intelligent, Stephen Hawking struggled in school for many years. He had difficulty learning to read initially, but as he grew older, he began to develop an obvious talent for mathematics and science. Upon his graduation from high school at the age of 17, he enrolled at Oxford University to pursue a degree in Chemistry and Physics.

At Oxford, he remained a rather mediocre student and has said that he felt bored and lonely for most of the first year he was there. In his second year, things changed when he joined the rowing club and gained a reputation for his fearlessness on the water.

As graduation approached, Hawking decided to pursue a graduate degree in Cosmology at Cambridge. He needed to graduate with a First-class degree to be accepted, and because he rarely studied, he wasn't sure if he would be able to do it. In his final oral exam, he famously told his examiners, 'If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.' He was awarded a First-class degree in Natural Sciences in 1962 and began graduate work at Cambridge later that same year.

Diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease

It wouldn't be long before his life would change dramatically. Following a series of mysterious falls, Hawking was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's Disease. At only twenty-one years old, his doctors estimated that he only had two more years to live.

For a while, he considered leaving school and giving up his studies altogether, but he eventually decided to continue. In later years, Hawking said of this time in his life, 'When you are faced with the possibility of mortality, you realize that life is precious, and you have a lot of things to do.' He set out to do as much as he could in the short time he believed he had left.

In the years that followed, Hawking's doctors were proven wrong. His disease progressed more slowly than expected, and in 1965, he graduated with a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics and married his first wife, Jane, that same year. Stephen and Jane would go on to have three children together.

Contributions to Science

In his Ph.D. thesis, Stephen Hawking proposed the idea that the entire universe began as a singularity, which is a region in space time where the gravitational field becomes infinitely large. It was known that singularities existed at the center of black holes, and after his graduation, Hawking continued his research into the nature of black holes and the singularity at the beginning of our universe. Hawking revolutionized our understanding of black holes and the beginning of the universe.

Stephen Hawking spent most of his career studying black holes like this one
a black hole

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