March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking dies at home in Cambridge, England at the age of 76 years. “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I am not afraid of death, but I am in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first”. His life did not shape the universe, but his devotion to the study of it did shape our way of understanding it.
Born in 1942 in Oxford, Hawking grew up with his parents, two sisters and an adoptive brother. During his primary and secondary school years, Hawking became known amongst his friends as “Einstein”, even though he was not much of an academic success initially. However, as time went by, Hawking began to show an aptitude towards scientific subjects, particularly mathematics. Nevertheless, by the time he was about to go to college, he did not get to enter the Mathematics faculty at Oxford University, so he decided to study physics and chemistry.
At first, Hawking found the academic work in physics and chemistry to be “ridiculously easy”. His teachers and professors later commented on his abilities.
Over the years, Hawking grew interested in classical music, science fiction and became a bright member of the University College Boat Club, which reduced his devotion to his studies. Hawking himself once estimated that he studied a total of 1000 hours during the three years at Oxford. That equals less than 1 hour a day, which is not much for an Oxford University student.
With this excessive preparation the finals troubled Hawking a lot. Particularly restless was he because of his interest in the graduate study in cosmology at Cambridge University, which required a first-class honours degree. Being at the borderline between first- and second-class honours, Hawking sat down at the orals anxiously because he feared to be seen as a lazy and, more importantly, difficult student. So he answered regarding his future plans “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 to give me a First”
He received a First-Class honours degree in natural science and continued his studies at Cambridge University. During his academic years here, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (ASL) and he fell into a deep depression. The doctors predicted he had a low life-expectancy, but encouraged him to continue his studies, which he did. Obtaining his PhD with a thesis about the Big Bang and Steady State theories, debating the question of the creation of the universe, Stephen Hawking truly began his search for the answer of the question regarding the origin of the Universe; a journey that would take his entire life.
“My goal is simple: It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all”. We cannot get any closer to describing Hawking’s work, his motivation behind it and where he was going with it, than by quoting him here.
Throughout his academic career, Hawking proved that there had to be a beginning of the Universe, a so-called Big Bang; a major singularity. Analysing the behaviour of black holes and what they actually are or might be, Hawking contributed continuously to the scientific debate.
But the scientist’s work goes beyond the scientific community. In 1988 he publishes the book “A Brief History of Time”, which explains the structure, the development, origin and eventual faith of the universe, making the book understandable to all kinds of people, through a non-technical lessic.
Living with ALS, Hawking set an example for everybody of how no physical condition can limit your spirit. In his own words: “I accept that there are some things I cannot do. But they are mostly things I do not particularly want to do anyway. I seem to manage to do anything that I really want”.
Hawking set an example for everybody with his contributions to the social life of society and by looking at intelligence as a responsibility beyond science. In 2006 he posted on the Internet: “In a World that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” later specifying “I do not know the answer. That is why I asked the question. To get people to think about it and to be aware of the dangers we now face”
We should all take Stephen Hawking as an astonishing example of a man who lived half a century knowing that every day could be his last, a man whose contributions to science and society will not be forgotten. Someone who defined the meaning of our life as follows:
“Remember to look up at the starts and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”