Photo: IntelFreePress (https://www.flickr.com/photos/intelfreepress/)
Born: January 8, 1942
Born Place: Oxford, United Kingdom
Died: March 14, 2018
Death Place: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Education: Trinity Hall Cambridge (1962–1966)
Movies and TV shows: Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking
- Hawking radiation
- A Brief History of Time
- Penrose–Hawking theorems
- Black hole information paradox
- Micro black hole
- Primordial black hole
- Chronology protection conjecture
- Soft hair (No hair theorem)
- Bekenstein–Hawking formula
- Hawking energy
- Hawking-Page phase transition
- Gibbons–Hawking ansatz
- Gibbons–Hawking effect
- Gibbons–Hawking space
- Gibbons–Hawking–York boundary term
- Hartle–Hawking state
- Thorne–Hawking–Preskill bet
- St Albans School, Hertfordshire
- University of Oxford (BA)
- University of Cambridge (PhD)
Spouse: Jane Wilde (m. 1965; div. 1995) || Elaine Mason (m. 1995; div. 2007)
Stephen William Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA (8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018) was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009.
Hawking was born in Oxford into a family of doctors. Hawking began his university education at University College, Oxford in October 1959 at the age of 17, where he received a first-class BA (Hons.) degree in physics. He began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in October 1962, where he obtained his PhD degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology in March 1966.
In 1963, Hawking was diagnosed with an early-onset slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease) that gradually paralysed him over the decades. After the loss of his speech, he was able to communicate through a speech-generating device—initially through use of a handheld switch, and eventually by using a single cheek muscle.
Hawking’s scientific works included a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, often called Hawking radiation. Hawking was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He was a vigorous supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Hawking achieved commercial success with several works of popular science in which he discussed his theories and cosmology in general. His book A Brief History of Time appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Hawking was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. In 2002, Hawking was ranked number 25 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. He died on 14 March 2018 at the age of 76, after living with motor neurone disease for more than 50 years.
Hawking was born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford to Frank (1905–1986) and Isobel Eileen Hawking (née Walker; 1915–2013). Hawking’s mother was born into a family of doctors in Glasgow, Scotland. His wealthy paternal great-grandfather, from Yorkshire, over-extended himself buying farm land and then went bankrupt in the great agricultural depression during the early 20th century. His paternal great-grandmother saved the family from financial ruin by opening a school in their home. Despite their families’ financial constraints, both parents attended the University of Oxford, where Frank read medicine and Isobel read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Isobel worked as a secretary for a medical research institute, and Frank was a medical researcher. Hawking had two younger sisters, Philippa and Mary, and an adopted brother, Edward Frank David (1955–2003).
In 1950, when Hawking’s father became head of the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, the family moved to St Albans, Hertfordshire. In St Albans, the family was considered highly intelligent and somewhat eccentric; meals were often spent with each person silently reading a book. They lived a frugal existence in a large, cluttered, and poorly maintained house and travelled in a converted London taxicab. During one of Hawking’s father’s frequent absences working in Africa, the rest of the family spent four months in Majorca visiting his mother’s friend Beryl and her husband, the poet Robert Graves.
Primary and secondary school years
Hawking began his schooling at the Byron House School in Highgate, London. He later blamed its “progressive methods” for his failure to learn to read while at the school. In St Albans, the eight-year-old Hawking attended St Albans High School for Girls for a few months. At that time, younger boys could attend one of the houses.
Hawking attended two independent (i.e. fee-paying) schools, first Radlett School and from September 1952, St Albans School, after passing the eleven-plus a year early. The family placed a high value on education. Hawking’s father wanted his son to attend the well-regarded Westminster School, but the 13-year-old Hawking was ill on the day of the scholarship examination. His family could not afford the school fees without the financial aid of a scholarship, so Hawking remained at St Albans. A positive consequence was that Hawking remained close to a group of friends with whom he enjoyed board games, the manufacture of fireworks, model aeroplanes and boats, and long discussions about Christianity and extrasensory perception. From 1958 on, with the help of the mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, they built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.
Although known at school as “Einstein”, Hawking was not initially successful academically. With time, he began to show considerable aptitude for scientific subjects and, inspired by Tahta, decided to read mathematics at university. Hawking’s father advised him to study medicine, concerned that there were few jobs for mathematics graduates. He also wanted his son to attend University College, Oxford, his own alma mater. As it was not possible to read mathematics there at the time, Hawking decided to study physics and chemistry. Despite his headmaster’s advice to wait until the next year, Hawking was awarded a scholarship after taking the examinations in March 1959.
Hawking began his university education at University College, Oxford, in October 1959 at the age of 17. For the first 18 months, he was bored and lonely – he found the academic work “ridiculously easy”. His physics tutor, Robert Berman, later said, “It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it.” A change occurred during his second and third year when, according to Berman, Hawking made more of an effort “to be one of the boys”. He developed into a popular, lively and witty college member, interested in classical music and science fiction. Part of the transformation resulted from his decision to join the college boat club, the University College Boat Club, where he coxed a rowing crew. The rowing coach at the time noted that Hawking cultivated a daredevil image, steering his crew on risky courses that led to damaged boats. Hawking estimated that he studied about 1,000 hours during his three years at Oxford. These unimpressive study habits made sitting his finals a challenge, and he decided to answer only theoretical physics questions rather than those requiring factual knowledge. A first-class honours degree was a condition of acceptance for his planned graduate study in cosmology at the University of Cambridge. Anxious, he slept poorly the night before the examinations, and the final result was on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, making a viva (oral examination) with the Oxford examiners necessary.
Hawking was concerned that he was viewed as a lazy and difficult student. So, when asked at the viva to describe his plans, he said, “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” He was held in higher regard than he believed; as Berman commented, the examiners “were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves”. After receiving a first-class BA (Hons.) degree in physics and completing a trip to Iran with a friend, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in October 1962.
Hawking’s first year as a doctoral student was difficult. He was initially disappointed to find that he had been assigned Dennis William Sciama, one of the founders of modern cosmology, as a supervisor rather than noted Yorkshire astronomer Fred Hoyle, and he found his training in mathematics inadequate for work in general relativity and cosmology. After being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Hawking fell into a depression – though his doctors advised that he continue with his studies, he felt there was little point. His disease progressed more slowly than doctors had predicted. Although Hawking had difficulty walking unsupported, and his speech was almost unintelligible, an initial diagnosis that he had only two years to live proved unfounded. With Sciama’s encouragement, he returned to his work. Hawking started developing a reputation for brilliance and brashness when he publicly challenged the work of Fred Hoyle and his student Jayant Narlikar at a lecture in June 1964.
When Hawking began his graduate studies, there was much debate in the physics community about the prevailing theories of the creation of the universe: the Big Bang and Steady State theories. Inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem of a spacetime singularity in the centre of black holes, Hawking applied the same thinking to the entire universe; and, during 1965, he wrote his thesis on this topic. Hawking’s thesis was approved in 1966. There were other positive developments: Hawking received a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge; he obtained his PhD degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology, in March 1966; and his essay “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” shared top honours with one by Penrose to win that year’s prestigious Adams Prize.
Hawking met his future wife, Jane Wilde, at a party in 1962. The following year, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. In October 1964, the couple became engaged to marry, aware of the potential challenges that lay ahead due to Hawking’s shortened life expectancy and physical limitations. Hawking later said that the engagement gave him “something to live for”. The two were married on 14 July 1965 in their shared hometown of St Albans.
The couple resided in Cambridge, within Hawking’s walking distance to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). During their first years of marriage, Jane lived in London during the week as she completed her degree at Westfield College. They travelled to the United States several times for conferences and physics-related visits. Jane began a PhD programme through Westfield College in medieval Spanish poetry (completed in 1981). The couple had three children: Robert, born May 1967, Lucy, born November 1969, and Timothy, born April 1979.
Hawking rarely discussed his illness and physical challenges, even – in a precedent set during their courtship – with Jane. His disabilities meant that the responsibilities of home and family rested firmly on his wife’s increasingly overwhelmed shoulders, leaving him more time to think about physics. Upon his appointment in 1974 to a year-long position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, Jane proposed that a graduate or post-doctoral student live with them and help with his care. Hawking accepted, and Bernard Carr travelled with them as the first of many students who fulfilled this role. The family spent a generally happy and stimulating year in Pasadena.
Hawking returned to Cambridge in 1975 to a new home and a new job, as reader. Don Page, with whom Hawking had begun a close friendship at Caltech, arrived to work as the live-in graduate student assistant. With Page’s help and that of a secretary, Jane’s responsibilities were reduced so she could return to her doctoral thesis and her new interest in singing.
Around December 1977, Jane met organist Jonathan Hellyer Jones when singing in a church choir. Hellyer Jones became close to the Hawking family, and by the mid-1980s, he and Jane had developed romantic feelings for each other. According to Jane, her husband was accepting of the situation, stating “he would not object so long as I continued to love him”. Jane and Hellyer Jones were determined not to break up the family, and their relationship remained platonic for a long period.
Hawking died at his home in Cambridge, England, on 14 March 2018, at the age of 76. His family stated that he “died peacefully”. He was eulogised by figures in science, entertainment, politics, and other areas. The Gonville and Caius College flag flew at half-mast and a book of condolences was signed by students and visitors. A tribute was made to Hawking in the closing speech by IPC President Andrew Parsons at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
His private funeral took place on 31 March 2018, at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge. Guests at the funeral included The Theory of Everything actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, and model Lily Cole. In addition, actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Stephen Hawking in Hawking, astronaut Tim Peake, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and physicist Kip Thorne provided readings at the service. Although Hawking was an atheist the funeral took place with a traditional Anglican service. Following the cremation, a service of thanksgiving was held at Westminster Abbey on 15 June 2018, after which his ashes were interred in the Abbey’s nave, between the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
Inscribed on his memorial stone are the words “Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942–2018” and his most famed equation. He directed, at least fifteen years before his death, that the Bekenstein–Hawking entropy equation be his epitaph. In June 2018, it was announced that Hawking’s words, set to music by Greek composer Vangelis, would be beamed into space from a European space agency satellite dish in Spain with the aim of reaching the nearest black hole, 1A 0620-00.
Hawking’s final broadcast interview, about the detection of gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two neutron stars, occurred in October 2017. His final words to the world appeared posthumously, in April 2018, in the form of a Smithsonian TV Channel documentary entitled, Leaving Earth: Or How to Colonize a Planet. One of his final research studies, entitled A smooth exit from eternal inflation?, about the origin of the universe, was published in the Journal of High Energy Physics in May 2018. Later, in October 2018, another of his final research studies, entitled Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair, was published, and dealt with the “mystery of what happens to the information held by objects once they disappear into a black hole”. Also in October 2018, Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, a popular science book presenting his final comments on the most important questions facing humankind, was published.
On 8 November 2018, an auction of 22 personal possessions of Stephen Hawking, including his doctoral thesis (“Properties of Expanding Universes”, PhD thesis, Cambridge University, 1965) and wheelchair, took place, and fetched about £1.8 m (more than $2.3 m). Proceeds from the auction sale of the wheelchair went to two charities, the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Stephen Hawking Foundation; proceeds from Hawking’s other items went to his estate.
In March 2019, it was announced that the Royal Mint issued a commemorative 50 pence coin in honour of Hawking. The same month, it was reported that Hawking’s nurse, Patricia Dowdy, had been handed an interim suspension in 2016 for “failures over his care and financial misconduct.”
- A Brief History of Time (1988)
- Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993)
- The Universe in a Nutshell (2001)
- On the Shoulders of Giants (2002)
- God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs That Changed History (2005)
- The Dreams That Stuff Is Made of: The Most Astounding Papers of Quantum Physics and How They Shook the Scientific World (2011)
- My Brief History (2013)
- Brief Answers to the Big Questions (2018)
- The Nature of Space and Time (with Roger Penrose) (1996)
- The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (with Roger Penrose, Abner Shimony and Nancy Cartwright) (1997)
- The Future of Spacetime (with Kip Thorne, Igor Novikov, Timothy Ferris and introduction by Alan Lightman, Richard H. Price) (2002)
- A Briefer History of Time (with Leonard Mlodinow) (2005)
- The Grand Design (with Leonard Mlodinow) (2010)
- Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Kip Thorne, and introduction by Frederick Seitz) (1994)
Co-written with his daughter Lucy.
- George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007)
- George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009)
- George and the Big Bang (2011)
- George and the Unbreakable Code (2014)
- George and the Blue Moon (2016)
Films and series
- A Brief History of Time (1992)
- Stephen Hawking’s Universe (1997)
- Hawking – BBC television film (2004) starring Benedict Cumberbatch
- Horizon: The Hawking Paradox (2005)
- Masters of Science Fiction (2007)
- Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (2007)
- Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe (2008)
- Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking (2010)
- Brave New World with Stephen Hawking (2011)
- Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design (2012)
- The Big Bang Theory (2012, 2014–2015, 2017)
- Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine (2013)
- The Theory of Everything – Feature film (2014) starring Eddie Redmayne
- Genius by Stephen Hawking (2016)