Stephen William Hawking was born on a cold winter’s day, January 8, 1942.
66 years later he trekked to Africa in esteemed company. Nobel Prize Laureates in Physics, David Gross and George Smoot; the Head of NASA, Michael Griffin, and South African Neil Turok, cosmologist and education activist, professor in Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University and founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa accompanied him.
Turok founded the Muizenberg based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a postgraduate educational centre supporting the development of mathematics and science across the African continent in 2003.AIMS offers a ten-month postgraduate course covering many of the most exciting areas of modern science, taught by outstanding African and international lecturers.
Some of the world’s greatest minds came to Cape Town in May 2008 to support Turok’s goal of unlocking and nurturing scientific talent, creating African Einsteins.
But all eyes and ears were on Stephen Hawking, England’s Einstein. Ironically, despite his inability to talk he is considered one of the last 20th Century “Celebrity Scientists” and is in great demand as a public speaker!
His broad smile and brilliant, sparkling eyes hint at his whacky sense of humour. At a recent Caltech lecture in Pasadena, USA, he was wheeled out of the auditorium to a standing ovation and took a victory lap around the building in his wheelchair while the crowd shouted “We love you Stephen.”
Mr Average Scholar (he may have done better if his scribbles had been legible) went on to University. He ended up in Physics studying Cosmology, took up rowing and was enjoying his life.
At Cambridge, age 21, doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and told him he didn’t have long to live.
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive, usually fatal, disease caused by the degeneration of motor neurons, the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement. The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body as the motor neurons degenerate, ceasing to send messages to muscles.
“The realisation that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock. How could something like that happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this? However, while I had been in hospital, I had seen a boy I vaguely knew die of leukaemia, in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy.”
He has maintained this positive outlook for 44 years. “I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.”
His death sentence spurred him on to try and achieve as much as he could in what little time was left to him. He completed his PhD, married Jane and struggled to decipher general relativity and cosmology.
By 1974 he was no longer able to feed himself or get in and out of bed, and his speech became so bad that only his closest companions could understand him.
In 1985 he contracted pneumonia and the resulting tracheotomy destroyed what was left of his voice. “For a time, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter
on a spelling card.” Now he has his famous voice synthesizer; “The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent.”
It is his ability to explain the complexities of theoretical physics and cosmology in a simple manner that has endeared him to the world. One of his books, A Brief History in Time, stayed on the best seller list for almost five years! His writings have been turned into movies and TV series. Stephen himself has often appeared on-screen, he hosts “Masters of Science Fiction” currently showing on DSTV.
He recently called for the colonising of space. “The moon is a good place to start because it is close by and relatively
easy to reach. It could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system. Mars would be the obvious next target, with its abundant supplies of frozen water, and the tantalising possibility that life may have been present there in the past,” he said.
“I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family, and being successful in my work. This is thanks to the help I have received from Jane, my children, and a large number of other people and organisations. I have been lucky, that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope.”