Stephen Hawking

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Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, born January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England, is one of the world's leading theoretical physicists. Hawking is Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge (a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton), and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. That he holds this post while almost completely incapacitated by severe amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has made him a worldwide celebrity.


The first child of Frank and Isobel Hawking, Stephen was born in Oxford, England, on January 8, 1942—the 300th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's death. He was educated at St Albans School, in Hertfordshire, and at University College, Oxford, where he obtained a first-class honours degree in Natural Science. He moved to Cambridge University to complete his PhD in cosmology at Trinity Hall. While at Cambridge in 1965, he married Jane Wilde, the daughter of Samantha Wilde, whom he had met at a New Year's party in St. Albans in 1963. (Ferguson, 1991: 42, 47).

Hawking was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, was appointed Commander of the British Empire in 1982, and became a Companion of Honour in 1989. He is a respected physicist, with many works recognised by both the International Association of Natural Physics and the American Physics-Astronomy Guild of Amherst.

Research fields

Hawking's principal fields of research are theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity. In 1971, he provided mathematical support for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe; if the general theory of relativity was correct, the universe must have a singularity, or starting point, in space-time. Hawking also suggested that, after the Big Bang, primordial or mini black holes were formed. He showed that the surface area of a black hole can increase but never decrease, that there is a limit to the radiation emitted when black holes collide, and that a single black hole cannot break apart into two separate black holes. In 1974, he calculated that black holes thermally create and emit subatomic particles until they exhaust their energy and explode. Known as Hawking radiation, this theory was first to describe a mathematical link among gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. In 1981, Hawking proposed that, although the universe had no boundary, it was finite in space-time; 1983 saw his mathematical proof of this theory.


Despite being severely disabled by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a form of Motor Neurone Disease, Hawking is highly active in physics, writing, and public life. Symptoms of the disorder first appeared while he was enrolled at Cambridge. Diagnosis came when Hawking was 21, shortly before his first marriage, and doctors said he would not survive more than two or three years. He battled the odds and has survived much longer, although he has become increasingly disabled by the gradual progress of the disease. He has used an electronic voice synthesizer to communicate since a tracheostomy in 1985 that followed severe pneumonia. He gradually lost the use of his arms, legs, and voice, and is now almost completely paralysed. The computer system attached to his wheelchair is operated by Hawking manually through a single switch, which, along with programs called Equalizer and EZKeys, allows him to talk; compose speeches, research papers, and books; browse the World Wide Web; write e-mail; and perform most other computer tasks. The system also uses radio transmission to provide control over doors, lights, and lifts at his home and office.

There is every chance that he would never have made the discoveries he has were it not for the support of his family. Although he divorced Jane in 1990 (they had 3 children — named Tim, Lucy and Robert — and now have a grandchild), Hawking is still something of a family man. Despite his disease, he describes himself as "lucky" — not just because its slow progress allowed him time to make influential discoveries but because it afforded him time to have, in his own words, "a very attractive family"[1]. When Jane was asked why she decided to marry a man with a 3-year life expectancy, she responded: "These were the days of atomic gloom and doom, so we all had rather a short life expectancy". He married his second wife, Elaine Mason, in 1995.


His first book, A Brief History of Time, was published on April 1, 1988, [2] and was a surprise best-seller. It was followed by The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). Both books have remained highly popular all over the world. A collection of essays, Black Holes and Baby Universes (1993) was also popular.

Hawking is famous for his oft-made statement, "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my gun." This was a deliberately ironic paraphrase of the phrase "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my Browning", from a play by German playwright and Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst. His witty way with words has both entertained the non-specialist public and helped them to understand complex questions. Asked recently (October 2005) to explain his assertion on the British daytime chat show Richard and Judy that the question, "What came before the big bang?" was meaningless, he compared it to asking, "What lies north of the north pole?" A week later, on the popular quiz show "Have I Got News For You" his comment on the Richard & Judy show that the idea of life after death was wishful thinking came under semi-humorous scrutiny, the Christian panelist and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop questioning the authority under which Hawking makes such a claim, arguably demonstrating a frustration within the conventional Christian world at the influence Hawking's atheistic views wield.

As well as his serious academic side and humour, Hawking is an active supporter of various causes. He appeared on a political broadcast for the United Kingdom's Labour Party, and actively supports the children's charity SOS Children's Villages. He also reportedly agreed to take part in a protest against the war in Iraq. [3]

Losing an old bet

Hawking was in the news in July 2004 for presenting a new theory about black holes which goes against his own long-held belief about their behaviour, thus losing a bet he made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill of Caltech. Classically, it can be shown that information crossing the event horizon of a black hole is lost to our universe, and that as a consequence all black holes are identical, beyond their mass, electrical charge and angular velocity (the "no hair theorem"). The problem with this theorem is that it implies the black hole will emit the same radiation regardless of what goes into the black hole, and as a consequence that if a pure quantum state is thrown into a black hole, an "ordinary" mixed state will be returned. This runs counter to the rules of quantum mechanics and is known as the black hole information paradox.

To him, the bet was an "insurance policy" of sorts. To quote from his book, A Brief History of Time, "This was a form of insurance policy for me. I have done a lot of work on black holes, and it would all be wasted if it turned out that black holes do not exist. But in that case, I would have the consolation of winning my bet, which would ring me four years of the magazine Private Eye. If black holes do exist, Kip will get one year of Penthouse. When we made the bet in 1975, we were 80 percent certain that Cygnus was a black hole. By now, I would say that we are about 95 percent certain, but the bet has yet to be settled." (1988)

Hawking had earlier speculated that the singularity at the centre of a black hole could form a bridge to a "baby universe" into which the lost information could pass; such theories have been very popular in science fiction. But according to Hawking's new idea, presented at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation, on 21 July, 2004 in Dublin, Ireland, black holes eventually transmit, in a garbled form, information about all matter they swallow:

The Euclidean path integral over all topologically trivial metrics can be done by time slicing and so is unitary when analytically continued to the Lorentzian. On the other hand, the path integral over all topologically non-trivial metrics is asymptotically independent of the initial state. Thus the total path integral is unitary and information is not lost in the formation and evaporation of black holes. The way the information gets out seems to be that a true event horizon never forms, just an apparent horizon.

GR Conference website summary of Hawking's talk.

Having concluded that information is conserved, Hawking conceded his bet in Preskill's favour, awarding him Total Baseball, The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia, an encyclopaedia from which information is easily retrieved. However, Thorne remains unconvinced of Hawking's proof and declined to contribute to the award.




  • The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime with George Ellis
  • The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind, (with Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright, and Roger Penrose), Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-521-56330-5 (hardback), ISBN 0-521-65538-2 (paperback), Canto edition: ISBN 0-521-78572-3
  • ...and many more


N.B. On Hawking's website, he denounces the unauthorized publication of The Theory of Everything and asks consumers to boycott this book.

Popular culture

  • MC Hawking — the imaginary alter-ego for the "theoretical physicist turned gangster-rapper"
  • The Simpsons — made a few guest appearances on the long running prime-time cartoon. In "They Saved Lisa's Brain", he saves Lisa from the power-hungry Springfield chapter of Mensa in a special wheelchair, complete with an Inspector Gadget-style retractable helicopter attachment and a spring-loaded boxing glove. (During the British Comedy Awards 2004, Hawking was presented with a one-off toy version of himself in Simpson form by Matt Groening, complete with boxing glove. Hawking presented Groening with a lifetime achievement award.) In the Season 16 episode "Don't Fear the Roofer", he is a friend of Lenny's and shows up to explain that Bart couldn't see Ray (guest voice Ray Romano) during one scene because there was a black hole between the two of them. Additionally, Homer makes a reference to Stephen Hawking when he is transported to a 3-D zone in a halloween episode, and claims: "I wish I read that book by that wheelchair guy." Hawking is also seen in a line of people about to board a space ship to Mars in one of the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes in which the earth is doomed. Stephen Hawking also plays a role by explaining how Ray Magini was not able to be seen by Bart, leading to Homer being put into a mental hospital.
  • Futurama — made a guest appearance as part of a team guarding the space-time continuum, which included Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, and Gary Gygax.
  • The Onion — satirical newspaper ran an article claiming that Hawking's head had been mounted on a super-robotic cyborg body, complete with laser guided missiles and a jetpack. [5] Hawking, with his typical good humour, sent them a letter cursing them for exposing his evil plans for world domination.
  • Dilbert — Was featured in an episode about Dilbert's project, the Gruntmaster 6000, creating a black hole to wipe out all life on Earth. During the episode, it is "revealed" that Hawking has the power to travel through both time and space via the use of wormholes and Dilbert learns the hard way that you should never bet money that a theoretical physicist can't do something.
  • Pinky and the Brain — In an episode where a black hole is used as a weapon, Pinky throws it out of a hotel room window in defiance of the laws of physics. Brain notes that he must consult with Stephen Hawking.
  • Star Trek: The Next GenerationData is seen playing poker with holographic depictions of Stephen Hawking, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. Hawking portrayed his own hologram for this episode. When taking a tour of the set, he paused at the Warp Core, smiled, and said, "I'm working on that." He is the only person in any Star Trek series to play himself. (Season 6, Episode 26 Descent, Part 1) Also, in the final episode of the series (All Good Things...), Data has assumed the Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, the post Hawking currently holds, in an alternate future.
  • Family Guy — Hawking's persona has been featured on the episode "Peter, Peter, Caviar Eater" It is a very brief cameo during the song "This House is Freaking Sweet" Hawking is presented as the man who will help Chris do his homework.
  • Pink Floyd — Hawking gave his "voice" to parts of the Pink Floyd song Keep Talking.
  • Radiohead — Radiohead's song "Fitter, Happier" contains lyrics that appear to be spoken by Hawking. They are actually spoken by Fred Cooper, the man whose voice is the basis for Hawking's speech system. Cooper's voice was also famously used by Apple on the first Macintosh computer.
  • Fairly Odd Parents — In the episode Remy Rides Again, Hawking appeared throughout the episode in a mechanical flying wheelchair with a rocket on the back of it that at the end of the episode, disappeared in a similar way as the Delorean going back in time in Back To The Future. Hawking was played by Dee Bradley Baker in this episode. Hawking was hired by Remy to prove that 2 + 2 = 5, and was also Crocker's room-mate in college.
  • Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine — Richard and Hawking sing "The Girl is Mine" as a charming duet on Aperitif for Destruction. (Celebrity voices impersonated)
  • Alien Planet — This is a special on the Discovery Channel. He presents some of his theories using his speaking device.
  • Bob & Tom Show — Hawking is portrayed (and his computerized voice simulated) in a spoof of the show I'm with Busey. At the end of the spoof, he's heard cursing his room-mate for being so stupid.
  • TV Offal — Hawking appeared alongside Victor Lewis-Smith in the pre-credit sequences for this short-lived British comedy show.
  • Hawking — Hawking's time at Cambridge University as a PhD student was the subject of this 2004 BBC TV movie. Hawking was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
  • The Brushback — Hawking was said by this satirical online newspaper to have been narrowly beaten out by Kordell Stewart for the job of Baltimore Ravens backup quarterback[6].
  • Dexter's Laboratory — Professor Hawke, obviously based on Hawking, plays the host of a contest Deedee wins.

See also


  • Ferguson, Kitty (1991). Stephen Hawking: Quest For A Theory of Everything. Franklin Watts. ISBN 0553-29895-X.
  • Hawking, S. W. & Ellis, G. F. R. (1973). The Large Scale Structure of Space-time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-09906-4.. A highly influential monograph in the field.
  • Hawking, S. W. & Israel, W. (1979). General relativity: an Einstein centenary survey, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22285-0.. A much cited centennial survey.
  • Misner, Charles; Thorne, Kip S. & Wheeler, John Archibald (1973). Gravitation, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-0344-0.; see Box 34.3 for a short biography. (This famous book is the first modern textbook on general relativity, and shows that even in the early seventies, Hawking was already regarded as an unusually intriguing personality by his colleagues.)

External links


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