The incredible individual that you will be learning about today is someone who has been inspiring and motivating me ever since I first heard about him when I was 13 years old. Although I have not seen it yet, with the biographical film documenting his life, “The Theory of Everything,” recently hitting theaters, it seems like a fitting time to introduce you to this amazing man. While I am not conceited nor naive enough to think that I am in the same league as him, you will quickly see that today’s inductee and I have a lot in common. We both were born with genetic, neuromuscular diseases. We are both huge nerds and have a fascination and love for mathematics. Most notably though, we both refuse to let our physical limitations stop us from leading fulfilling, meaningful lives and sharing our mental gifts with the world. Today’s topic for discussion, and newest entry into the club of Honorary Roll Models, is Dr. Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking was born a bouncing, healthy baby boy in 1942 in Oxford, England, to two loving parents. His parents were both very well educated graduates of the University of Oxford, and their love for knowledge and learning definitely rubbed off on Stephen and his younger siblings. While he always showed a keen mind and an interest in learning, he was not considered a prodigy or especially gifted academically as a young boy. As a teenager however, he began to show a considerable affinity for scientific subjects, especially mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and thanks to the encouragement and guidance of one of his teachers, he was able to develop his enormous gift for understanding science. He ended up attending the University of Oxford as an undergraduate at the young age of 17, and although he wanted to study mathematics, to make himself more marketable (there are no jobs for math majors, which I learned the hard way) he decided to study physics and chemistry instead.
He found his time at Oxford boring and uninteresting initially, as he was not challenged by any of his course work. After he matured and got more acclimated to college life, he underwent a personal transformation and became much more personable with his peers. Stephen actually grew into a quite popular student around campus, and he even joined the Oxford Boat Club, where he coxed a rowing team. Although he once estimated that he only studied 1,000 hours during his three years at Oxford (that is not even an hour a day), he still graduated with a first-class honors degree and was accepted to study cosmology at the University of Cambridge in 1962. During his time at Cambridge he became very interested in the heated debate at the time about the creation of the universe and the work of Roger Penrose on black holes and singularity (nerd-speak, feel free to move on). By melding together parts of both of these topics he was able to write his thesis and highly regarded essay, “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time,” and graduate with his PhD in 1966.
His time at Cambridge is also when he first started having issues with his health. He noticed that he had grown increasingly clumsy during his final year at Oxford, and he even had an incident where he fell down a flight of stairs. His ability to pursue his activities on the rowing team also had gotten considerably more difficult. When he went home during the Holidays of his first year at Cambridge, his family noticed that his speech had gotten slurred and hard to understand. With something obviously wrong, he began seeing various doctors looking for answers. Eventually in 1963, at the age of only 21 years old, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease or motor neuron disease. Despite the fact that specialists only gave him a life expectancy of 2 years, he could no longer walk without help (if at all), and his speech had become nearly unintelligible, he refused to give up or give in to this despicable disease that had turned his life upside down (starting to sound like someone you know?). He returned to Cambridge and threw himself into his studies with a renewed zeal that has never diminished, and this newfound devotion to his passion for science is what has fueled him ever since.
For the last 50 years Hawking has been considered one of the the top minds in the field of cosmology and the study of the universe. He has written countless essays and proofs that are held in the same esteem as Einstein’s theories on relativity as the most important scientific papers of the 20th century. His argument for what is now called Hawking-Radiation in 1974 about the nature of black holes was one of his first groundbreaking works. He also is highly regarded for his work with Penrose on the aptly named Hawking-Penrose Theorems that deal with singularities within black holes. In addition to his academic publications that maybe a dozen people in the entire world can understand, he has also strived to pass some of his love and knowledge of the universe to the general public by writing other, more accessible works. His book, “A Brief History of Time,” which was first published in 1988, is still considered one of the best books on the market for learning about the universe, and it spent hundreds of days on the best sellers list. All of the contributions he has made to science have not gone unnoticed, and he has been awarded numerous honors and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Maxwell Award, and induction into the Order of the British Empire.
You would think that being the smartest person on the planet and painstakingly trying to share your genius with the world, especially when you cannot even speak other than through the use of an electronic device, would be enough for a person. For Dr. Hawking though, it is not enough to merely work to explain the entire universe to the rest of us. He also devotes a great deal of time and energy to trying to advance the rights and place of disabled people around the world. In 2000, he signed the “Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability,” which asked governments to work to prevent disabilities and protect the rights of the currently disabled. Several years ago he even took a ride in the “Vomit Comet” to show how weightlessness could potentially benefit individuals with physical limitations. Just last year Stephen accepted the now infamous “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise awareness and money for ALS research. These are just a few of the numerous ways that this brilliant, courageous man has worked to better the lives of disabled people worldwide, and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.
The following quote by Hawking from the biographical documentary film, “Hawking,” does a wonderful job of showing how disabled individuals fit into our able-bodied world.
“We are all different – but we share the same human spirit. Perhaps it’s human nature that we adapt – and survive.” – Stephen Hawking
Despite the fact that he has spent nearly all of his adult life trapped within a failing body and can barely communicate with those around him, Stephen has achieved more and done more for others than most people do in a lifetime. He has unravelled some of the secrets of the universe, helped progress the rights of the physically disabled, and been a source of inspiration for millions throughout his life. While I like to think of myself as a “poor man’s version” of Dr. Hawking, since we do have a lot in common, I know that I can never reach his level of genius or accomplish as much as he has. By learning from him however, I do hope that I can use the motivation he instills in me to help others in my own small way, and I hope you will do the same. If we all had the drive and determination of a Stephen Hawking, just imagine how much we could achieve and how much better the world would be. Although it is nothing compared to having cameos on shows like “The Simpson’s” or “The Big Bang Theory,” I am proud to announce Dr. Stephen Hawking as the newest Honorary Roll Model.