Stephen Hawking is perhaps one of mathematics’ most public faces. He was born in Oxford during World War II, and although he grew up in St Albans, he returned to Oxford to study physics at University College for which he received first class honours.
He then went to Cambridge to undertake research in Cosmology, during which time his family noticed that he was becoming increasingly clumsy.
In 1963 he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Doctors predicted that he would not even survive to complete his doctorate. However, they had not taken Hawking’s sheer determination into account, and against all the odds he quickly progressed.
After gaining his Ph.D, he went on to become first a Research Fellow, then a Professor. Since 1979, Hawking has been the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, a post which was held by Isaac Newton way back in 1669.
Working with another mathematician Roger Penrose, Hawking demonstrated that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity implied that space and time began with the Big Bang, and would end with black holes. Moreover, this work led to the unification of the General Theory of Relativity with Quantum Theory, which showed that black holes can, in fact, emit radiation.
Stephen Hawking has published many papers and books over his mathematical lifetime, although he is probably most famous for his popular works, the most well known of which is A Brief History of Time. Unfortunately, a year after the completion of his first draft, Hawking suffered a severe bout of pneumonia, and doctors were forced to undertake a tracheotomy, leaving him without his voice. However, he continued to work on the book using a computer to give him the ‘electronic voice’, which is familiar to us today. A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 to great acclaim. It was so popular that it remained on the bestseller list for 237 days (breaking the previous record) and reached number one on the list in just three days!
Despite suffering from MND, Hawking has achieved a great deal. He has not one but 12 honorary degrees from various universities, as well as receiving numerous awards and prizes for his achievements, and was made a CBE in 1982. Hawking continues to lecture and research into theoretical physics around the world.