Stephen Hawking 70th-Birthday Salute

On the occasion of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday, his friend and colleague Martin Rees tells the story of his illness, the brilliance of his discoveries, and why he has become a cult figure.

01.08.12 12:28 AM ET

In my first week as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964 I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. I learned that he had a degenerative disease and might not live long enough even to finish his Ph.D. degree.

But, amazingly, he has reached the age of 70. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t merely survive. He has become arguably the most famous scientist in the world—acclaimed for his brilliant research, for his bestselling books, and, above all, for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given, back in 1964 when Stephen received his “death sentence,” against ever celebrating this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement.

Stephen went from St. Albans School to Oxford University. He was, by all accounts, a “laid back” undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first-class degree, and an “entry ticket” to a research career in Cambridge.

Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. But his scientific career went from strength to strength: he quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea) and how our universe began. In 1974 he was elected to the Royal Society at the exceptionally early age of 32.

He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But this was still just the beginning. At that time he worked, as I did, at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. I would often push his wheelchair into his office: he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory—the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours—he couldn’t even to turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best-ever idea—encapsulated in an equation that he said he wanted on his gravestone.

The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that were hitherto conceptually unconnected—for instance, Isaac Newton famously realized that the force making an apple fall was the same as the force that held the moon and planets in their orbits. Stephen’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory. This has still not been tested. However, it has been hugely influential; indeed, one of the main achievements of string theory has been to confirm and build on his idea.

By the end of the 1970s, Stephen had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts in Cambridge—the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton himself. He held this chair with distinction for 30 years, but reached the retiring age in 2009 and now holds a special research post. He has continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe—addressing questions like “was our big bang the only one?” He has always had an amazing ability to figure things out in his head. But generally, he has a colleague who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say what should come next.

In 1987, Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than 10 years since he could write, or even use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye toward one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand, and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences.

These were then declaimed by a speech synthesizer, with the androidal American accent that has thereafter become his trademark. His lectures are, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes. He has learnt to economize with words. His comments are aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In recent years, he has become too weak to control this machine effectively, and his communication, to his immense frustration, has become even slower.

At the time of his operation, he had a rough draft of a book, which he’d hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, Robert and Lucy, who were then of college age. On his recovery from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor.

When the U.S. edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold.

This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success.

Stephen became an international celebrity. His later ideas appear, beautifully illustrated, in other books: Our Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design. These weren’t bought by quite as many people as his first book. But they were more clearly written, and probably more people got to the end of them. The only “downside” of their success is that these essentially “popular” books attracted more attention from philosophers and theologians than they could bear. He has featured in numerous TV programs; his lectures have filled the Albert Hall, and similar venues in the U.S. and Japan (In principle, machine translation could give him an advantage over the rest of us by converting his speech into Japanese, Korean, or other languages). He lectured at Clinton’s White House; he was back there more recently when Obama presented him with a distinguished award. He has been featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons.

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Why has he become such a “cult figure”? The concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably wouldn’t have achieved the same resonance with a worldwide public. However, his fame should not overshadow his scientific contributions because even though most scientists are not as famous as he is, he has undoubtedly done more than anyone else since Einstein to improve our knowledge of gravity and he is one of the top-10 living theoretical physicists.

During the very earliest instants after the “big bang,” everything was so immensely squeezed that quantum fluctuations could shake the entire “embryo universe.” This is the focus of Hawking’s interest—the topic on which he continues to write technical papers, and speak at premiere international conferences—doubly remarkable in a subject like math, where even healthy researchers tend to peak at an early age. He himself reminded us that he wasn’t another Einstein, but nonetheless few, if any, have done more to deepen our knowledge of gravity, space, and time.

He continues to be an inveterate traveller. This involves an entourage of assistants and nurses. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, gives him the resources for nursing care, even private jets, and protects him against the “Does he take sugar?” type of indignity that the disabled often suffer.

Stephen is far from being the archetype unworldy or nerdish scientist—his personality unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. He enjoys trips to theatre or opera. He has robust common sense, and forceful political opinions that he was ready to express. Despite the pressures and difficulties, he was a determined campaigner for the disabled. And he has been happy to align himself with other campaigns. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers showed remarkable pictures of him, in his wheelchair, surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah. Even more astonishing are the pictures of him floating in the NASA aircraft that allows passengers to experience weightlessness.

And he is also, at the personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He records that, when in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, his depression was lifted when he compared his lot with a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukemia. In later life, he went to great effort to visit a terminally ill colleague.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 22. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and his expectations dropped to zero. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds—a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination. His “three score years and 10” deserve all the accolades they are getting this week.