Stephen William Hawking

Quick Info

8 January 1942
Oxford, England
14 March 2018
Cambridge, England

Stephen Hawking was one of the world's foremost theoretical physicists famous for his work on black holes.


Stephen Hawking's parents lived in London where his father was undertaking research into medicine. However, London was a dangerous place during World War II and Stephen's mother was sent to the safer town of Oxford where Stephen was born. The family were soon back together living in Highgate, north London, where Stephen began his schooling.

In 1950 Stephen's father moved to the Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill. The family moved to St Albans so that the journey to Mill Hill was easier. Stephen attended St Albans High School for Girls (which took boys up to the age of 10). When he was older he attended St Albans school but his father wanted him to take the scholarship examination to go to Westminster public school. However Stephen was ill at the time of the examinations and remained at St Albans school which he had attended from the age of 11. Stephen writes in [2]:-
I got an education there that was as good as, if not better than, that I would have had at Westminster. I have never found that my lack of social graces has been a hindrance.
Hawking wanted to specialise in mathematics in his last couple of years at school where his mathematics teacher had inspired him to study the subject. However Hawking's father was strongly against the idea and Hawking was persuaded to make chemistry his main school subject. Part of his father's reasoning was that he wanted Hawking to go to University College, Oxford, the College he himself had attended, and that College had no mathematics fellow.

In March 1959 Hawking took the scholarship examinations with the aim of studying natural sciences at Oxford. He was awarded an exhibition, despite feeling that he had performed badly, and at University College he specialised in physics in his natural sciences degree. He only just made a First Class degree in 1962 and in [1] he explains how the attitude of the time worked against him:-
The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to be brilliant without effort, or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a grey man - the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.
From Oxford, Hawking moved to Cambridge to take up research in general relativity and cosmology, a difficult area for someone with only a little mathematical background. Hawking had noticed that he was becoming rather clumsy during his last year at Oxford and, when he returned home for Christmas 1962 at the end of his first term at Cambridge, his mother persuaded him to see a doctor.

In early 1963 he spent two weeks having tests in hospital and motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig's disease) was diagnosed. His condition deteriorated quickly and the doctors predicted that he would not live long enough to complete his doctorate. However Hawking writes:-
... although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found to my surprise that I was enjoying life in the present more than I had before. I began to make progress with my research...
The reason that his research progressed was that he met a girl he wanted to marry and realised he had to complete his doctorate to get a job so:-
... I therefore started working for the first time in my life. To my surprise I found I liked it.
After completing his doctorate in 1966 Hawking was awarded a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. At first his position was that of Research Fellow, but later he became a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. In 1973 he left the Institute of Astronomy and joined to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge. He became Professor of Gravitational Physics at Cambridge in 1977. In 1979 Hawking was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. The man born 300 years to the day after Galileo died now held Newton's chair at Cambridge.

Between 1965 and 1970 Hawking worked on singularities in the theory of general relativity devising new mathematical techniques to study this area of cosmology. Much of his work in this area was done in collaboration with Roger Penrose who, at that time, was at Birkbeck College, London. From 1970 Hawking began to apply his previous ideas to the study of black holes.

Continuing this work on black holes, Hawking discovered in 1970 a remarkable property. Using quantum theory and general relativity he was able to show that black holes can emit radiation. His success with proving this made him work from that time on combining the theory of general relativity with quantum theory. In 1971 Hawking investigated the creation of the Universe and predicted that, following the big bang, many objects as heavy as 10910^{9} tons but only the size of a proton would be created. These mini black holes have large gravitational attraction governed by general relativity, while the laws of quantum mechanics would apply to objects that small.

Another remarkable achievement of Hawking's using these techniques was his "no boundary proposal" made in 1983 with Jim Hartle of Santa Barbara. Hawking explains that this would mean:-
... that both time and space are finite in extent, but they don't have any boundary or edge. ... there would be no singularities, and the laws of science would hold everywhere, including at the beginning of the universe.
In 1982 Hawking decided to write a popular book on cosmology. By 1984 he had produced a first draft of A Brief History of Time. However Hawking was to suffer a further illness:-
I was in Geneva, at CERN, the big particle accelerator, in the summer of 1985. ... I caught pneumonia and was rushed to hospital. The hospital in Geneva suggested to my wife that it was not worth keeping the life support machine on. But she was having none of that. I was flown back to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, where a surgeon called Roger Grey carried out a tracheotomy. That operation saved my life but took away my voice.
Hawking was given a computer system to enable him to have an electronic voice. It was with these difficulties that he revised the draft of A Brief History of Time which was published in 1988. The book broke sales records in a way that it would have been hard to predict. By May 1995 it had been in The Sunday Times best-sellers list for 237 weeks breaking the previous record of 184 weeks. This feat is recorded in the 1998 Guinness Book of Records. Also recorded there is the fact that the paperback edition was published on 6 April 1995 and reached number one in the best sellers in 3 days. By April 1993 there had been 40 hardback editions of A Brief History of Time in the United States and 39 hardback editions in the UK.

In 2002 Hawking published On the shoulders of giants. The great works of physics and astronomy. This book, which he edited, contains reprints of nearly complete editions of: Copernicus, On the revolution of the heavenly spheres (1543); Galileo, Dialogues concerning two new sciences (1638); Kepler, Harmony of the world (Book Five) (1618); Newton, Principia (1687); and seven papers on relativity by Einstein. Each work is prefaced with a commentary by Hawking. Also from 7 to 10 January 2002 a workshop and symposium was held in Cambridge to celebrate Hawking's 60th birthday. The Proceeding was published in 2003 and James T Liu writes in a review:-
While many prominent physicists, cosmologists and astronomers have made important contributions to the study of quantum gravity and cosmology, the impact of Stephen Hawking's contributions to the field truly stand out. Although his work on black hole thermodynamics is perhaps the most well known, Hawking has also made major contributions to the study of singularity theorems in general relativity, black hole uniqueness, quantum fields in curved spacetimes, Euclidean quantum gravity, the wave function of the universe and many other areas as well. In addition to his own work, Hawking has served as advisor and mentor to a remarkable set of students. Furthermore, it would be hard to imagine assembling any list of researchers working in quantum cosmology without including a large number of Hawking's students and close colleagues. Thus the group that gathered at the CMS in Cambridge in honour of his 60th birthday includes some of the leading theorists in the field.
In 2005 Hawking published Information loss in black holes in which he proposed a solution to the information loss paradox. In the same year Black holes and the information paradox was published, being the transcript of the famous talk Hawking gave at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin in 2004. In 2007 he published God created the integers. The mathematical breakthroughs that changed history. This is another anthology edited by Hawking containing selections from the writings of twenty-one mathematicians. For each mathematician he gives a brief biography and puts the selection into its mathematical context.

Of course Hawking has received, and continues to receive, a large number of honours for his remarkable achievements. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, being one of its youngest fellows. In 1975 he was awarded the Eddington Medal, in 1976 received the Hughes Medal from the Royal Society, in 1979 he was awarded the Albert Einstein Medal, in 1982 be was made a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen, in 1985 he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in 1986 he was elected a Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He continued to receive major honours such as the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics in 1988. In the following year he received the Prince of Asturias Awards in Concord and also was made a Companion of Honour. In 1999 he received the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society:-
... for boldness and creativity in gravitational physics, best illustrated by the prediction that black holes should emit black body radiation and evaporate, and for the special gift of making abstract ideas accessible and exciting to experts, generalists, and the public alike.
In 2003 Hawking was awarded the Michelson Morley Award of Case Western Reserve University and in 2006 the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. This last award, announced on 24 August 2006, was presented to Hawking on the 30 November 2006 at the Society's annual Anniversary Day, commemorating the foundation of the Society in 1660. This was the 275th anniversary of the Copley Medal and the award to Hawking was marked in a unique way. The medal he received had been carried by the British astronaut Piers Sellers on a Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, said:-
Stephen Hawking has contributed as much as anyone since Einstein to our understanding of gravity. This medal is a fitting recognition of an astonishing research career spanning more than 40 years.
Piers Sellers said:-
Stephen Hawking is a definitive hero to all of us involved in exploring the Cosmos. His contribution to science is unique and he serves as a continuous inspiration to every thinking person. It was an honour for the crew of the STS-121 mission to fly his medal into space. We think that this is particularly appropriate as Stephen has dedicated his life to thinking about the larger Universe.
In reply Hawking said:-
This is a very distinguished medal. It was awarded to Darwin, Einstein and Crick. I am honoured to be in their company.

References (show)

  1. Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. S Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (London, 1993).

Additional Resources (show)

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2009