EDITION: August - October 2018

Stephen Hawking - A profile in courage

By Jerry Brownstein
Stephen Hawking overcame a debilitating illness to become one of the brightest stars in the world of science. His insights helped to shape modern cosmology, and he inspired a global audience of millions. He was diagnosed with the terminal motor neuron disease ALS in 1963 at the age of 21, and the doctors told him that he would live for only two more years. Yet he persevered through courage and an indomitable will, and finally passed away on March 14, 2018 at the age of 76.  Hawking’s brilliant intellect, coupled with his illness, made him an iconic symbol of the unbounded possibilities of the human mind. Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. Hawking expressed it this way:  “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research.” He dedicated himself to finding  “a complete understanding of the universe - why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Hawking’s fertile mind and imagination led him to create many new theories that revolutionized the field of cosmology – the study of how the universe was formed and how it behaves. His radical discoveries led to his election in 1974 to the Royal Society at the young age of 32. Five years later he became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, arguably Britain’s most distinguished chair, and a post formerly held by the great Isaac Newton.  The esteemed astronomer Lord Rees was a colleague of Hawking who knew him well as both a person and a scientist. He had this to say:  “Stephen was far from being the archetypal unworldy or nerdish scientist. His personality remained amazingly unwarped by his physical situation. His career was an inspiring crescendo of achievement.” Rees added: “Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time.”

Despite Stephen Hawking’s great academic success, it was his book “A Brief History of Time” that rocketed him to stardom. Published in 1988, it stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks. It has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. The book described the complex world of cosmology in non-technical terms, so that the average reader could understand about the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe. Cosmological concepts such as the Big Bang, black holes, relativity and quantum mechanics came into mainstream consciousness through this book and the videos made from it.

Hawking was one of the greatest physicists of his time, and among his many accolades was the prestigious Albert Einstein award. But perhaps more important than his scientific achievements, was the inspiration he provided to the world by rising to the top of his profession despite a disability that would leave most of us merely striving to survive. In trying to explain his intense love of life and the miracle of his survival he said: “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” •