Even if you don't keep a close eye on new developments in physics, you've probably heard of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. He's prided himself on making his complex physical concepts accessible to the public and writing the bestseller, "A Brief History of Time."
And if you are a fan of Conan O'Brien, "The Simpsons" or "Star Trek," you might have seen him brandishing his cool wit during guest appearances on those shows.
Even if you are familiar with his academic work, however, there are many interesting facts you might not know about Hawking, stretching from his time at school and gradual development of disability to his opinions on the future of the human race.
Many find it surprising, for instance, that, despite his influential body of work, Hawking hasn't yet been awarded the Nobel Prize. We'll talk about some of the remarkable distinctions he has received, however.
Another interesting fact: Hawking was born on Jan. 8, 1942, which just happened to be the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death.
But this has just been the warm-up. Next, we'll delve into some fascinating and unexpected facts about Hawking, including some things about his profoundly inspirational story.
These days, we know Hawking as a brilliant mind whose theories are difficult for a nonscientific mind to grasp. This is why it may come as a shock to learn that Hawking was a slacker when it came to his school studies.
In fact, when he was 9 years old, his grades ranked among the worst in his class [source: Larsen]. With a little more effort, he brought those grades up to about average, but not much better.
Nevertheless, from an early age he was interested in how stuff worked. He has talked about how he was known to disassemble clocks and radios. However, he admits he wasn't very good at putting them back together so they could work again.
Despite his poor grades, both his teachers and his peers seemed to understand that they had a future genius among them, evidenced by the fact that his nickname was "Einstein."
The problem with his mediocre grades was that his father wanted to send him to Oxford, but didn't have the money without a scholarship. Luckily, when it came time for the scholarship exams, he aced them, getting an almost perfect score on the physics exam.
Stephen Hawking took a liking to mathematics from an early age, and he would have liked to have majored in it. His father, Frank, however, had different ideas. He hoped Stephen would instead study medicine.
But, for all his interest in science, Stephen didn't care for biology. He has said that he found it to be "too inexact, too descriptive" [source: Larsen]. He would have rather devoted his mind to more precise, well-defined concepts.
One problem, however, was that Oxford didn't have mathematics as a major. The compromise was that Stephen would attend Oxford and major in physics.
In fact, even within physics, he focused on the bigger questions. When faced with deciding between the two tracks of particle physics, which studies the behavior of subatomic particles, versus cosmology, which studies the large universe as a whole, he chose the latter. He chose cosmology despite the fact that, at that time, he says, it was "hardly recognised as a legitimate field" [source: Hawking].
In explaining why, he said that particle physics "seemed like botany. There were all these particles, but no theory" [source: Larsen].
Biographer Kristine Larsen writes about how Hawking faced isolation and unhappiness during his first year or so at Oxford. The thing that seems to have drawn him out of this funk was joining the rowing team.
Even before being diagnosed with a physically disabling illness, Hawking didn't have what one would call a large or athletic build. However, row teams recruited smaller men like Hawking to be coxswains -- a position that does not row, but rather controls steering and stroke rate.
Because rowing was so important and competitive at Oxford, Hawking's role on the team made him very popular. Remembering Hawking from those days, one fellow boatsman called him "the adventurous type" [source: Larsen].
But as much as the rowing team helped his popularity, it hurt his study habits. Occupied with rowing practice for six afternoons per week, Hawking started "to cut serious corners" and used "creative analysis to create lab reports" [source: Larsen].
As a graduate student, Hawking gradually started showing symptoms of tripping and general clumsiness. His family became concerned when he was home during his Christmas break from school and they insisted he see a doctor.
Before seeing a specialist, however, he attended a New Year's party where he met his future wife, Jane Wilde. She remembers being attracted to his "his sense of humor and his independent personality."
He turned 21 a week later, and shortly after he entered the hospital for two weeks of tests to discover what was wrong with him. He was then diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which is a neurological disease that causes patients to lose control of their voluntary muscles. He was told he'd probably only have a few years to live.
Hawking remembers being shocked and wondering why this happened to him. However, seeing a boy dying of leukemia in the hospital made him realize that there were others worse off than him.
Hawking became more optimistic and started dating Jane. They were soon engaged, and he cites their engagement as giving him "something to live for" [source: Larsen].
One of Hawking's major achievements (which he shares with Jim Hartle) was to come up with the theory that the universe has no boundaries in 1983.
In 1983, the effort to understand the nature and shape of the universe, Hawking and Hartle combined the concepts of quantum mechanics (the study of the behavior of microscopic particles) with general relativity (Einstein's theories about gravity and how mass curves space) to show that the universe is a contained entity and yet has no boundaries.
To conceptualize this, he tells people to think of the universe like the surface of the Earth. As a sphere, you can go in any direction on the surface of the Earth and never reach a corner, an edge or any boundary where the Earth can be said to "end." However, one major difference is that the surface of the Earth is two-dimensional (even though the Earth itself is three-dimensional, the surface is only two-dimensional), while the universe is four-dimensional.
Hawking explains that spacetime (see the sidebar on this page) is like the lines of latitude on the globe. Starting at the North Pole (the beginning of the universe) and going south, the circumferences get bigger until beyond the equator, when they would get smaller. This means that the universe is finite in spacetime and will re-collapse eventually -- however, not for at least 20 billion years [source: Hawking]. Does this mean that time itself would go backwards? Hawking grappled with this question, but decided no, because there is no reason to believe that the universe's trend from ordered energy into disordered energy will reverse [source: Hawking].
In 2004, the genius Hawking admitted he had been wrong and conceded a bet he made in 1997 with a fellow scientist about black holes. To understand the bet, let's backpedal a little to understand what black holes are in the first place.
Stars are gigantic -- they have so much mass that their gravity is always incredibly strong. This is fine, as long as the star continues to burn its nuclear fuel, exerting this energy outward, thus counteracting gravity. However, once a massive enough star "dies" or burns out, gravity becomes the stronger force, and causes that big star to collapse on itself. This creates what scientists call a black hole.
The gravity is so powerful in this collapse that not even light can escape. However, Hawking proposed in 1975 that black holes are not really black. Rather, they radiate energy.
But, he said at the time, information is lost in the black hole that eventually evaporates. The problem was that this idea that information is lost conflicted with the rules of quantum mechanics, creating what Hawking called an "information paradox."
American theoretical physicist John Preskill disagreed with this conclusion that information is lost in black hole. In 1997, he made a bet with Hawking saying that information can escape from them, thus not breaking the laws of quantum mechanics.
Hawking is such a good sport that he can admit when he's wrong -- which he did in 2004. While giving a lecture at a scientific conference, he said that because black holes have more than one "topology," and when one measures all the information released from all topologies, information isn't lost [source: Rodgers].
In his long career in physics, Hawking has racked up an incredibly impressive array of awards and distinctions. We don't hope to be exhaustive in this small space, but we'll go over some of the highlights.
In 1974, he was inducted into the Royal Society (the royal academy of science in the U.K., dating back to 1660), and a year later, Pope Paul VI awarded him and Roger Penrose the Pius XI Gold Medal for Science. He also went on to receive the Albert Einstein Award and Hughes Medal from the Royal Society.
Hawking had so well established himself in the academic world by 1979 that he attained the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England -- a position he would keep for the next 30 years. The chair dates all the way back to 1663, and the second person to hold it was none other than Sir Isaac Newton.
In the 1980s, he was invested as a Commander of the British Empire, which is a rank in the U.K. just under being knighted. He also became a Companion of Honour, which is another distinction given in recognition of national service. There can be no more than 65 members of the order at one time.
In 2009, Hawking was awarded the United States' highest civilian honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All the while, Hawking attained at least 12 honorary degrees. However, the Nobel Prize continues to elude him.
One of the most unexpected facets of Stephen Hawking's resume is that of being a children's book author. In 2007, Stephen and his daughter, Lucy Hawking, collaborated to write "George's Secret Key to the Universe."
The book is a fiction story about a young boy, George, who rebels against his parents' aversion to technology. He begins to befriend neighbors, one of whom is a physicist with a computer. This turns out to be most powerful computer in the world, which offers portals to see and enter into outer space.
Of course, much of the book is meant to explain heavy scientific concepts, such as black holes and the origin of life, to children. In this context, it is very fitting that Hawking, who has always sought to make his work more accessible, would want to write such a book.
The book was written to be the first of a trilogy that would continue George's adventures. The next one in the series came out in 2009 and is called "George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt."
Considering all of Hawking's work in cosmology, people are understandably interested in his opinions on the possibility of alien life. During NASA's 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, Hawking was invited to speak, and he mentioned his thoughts on the subject.
He expressed that, given the vastness of the universe, there very well could be primitive alien life out there, and it is possible, other intelligent life.
"Primitive life is very common," Hawking said, "and intelligent life is very rare." Of course, he threw in his characteristically sharp humor to say, "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth" [source: Hawking]. He went on the say that humans should be wary of exposure to aliens because alien life will probably not be DNA-based, and we would not have resistance to diseases.
Hawking also did an episode on the possibility of aliens for "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking" on the Discovery Channel (the parent company of HowStuffWorks.com).
In this episode, he explains that aliens might use up their own planet's resources and "become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach." Or, they could set up a mirror system to focus all the energy of the sun in one area, creating a wormhole -- a hole to travel through spacetime.
In 2007, when Stephen Hawking was 65 years old, he got to take the ride of a lifetime. He was able to experience zero-gravity and float out of his wheelchair thanks to Zero Gravity Corp. The service involves an airplane ride in which sharp ascent and descent allows passengers to experience weightlessness in flight for several rounds, each about 25-seconds long.
Hawking, free from his wheelchair for the first time in four decades, was even able to perform gymnastic flips. Hawking also has booked a seat with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to ride on a sub-orbital flight.
But perhaps most interesting about this is not what he was able to do, but why he did it. When asked about why he wanted to do this, he of course cited his desire to go into space. But his reasons for going and his overall support for space travel went deeper than that.
Due to the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, Hawking has said that the future of the human race, if it is going to have a long one, will be in outer space [source: Boyle]. He supports private space exploration in hopes that space tourism will become affordable for the public. He hopes that we can travel to other planets to use their resources to survive [source: Daily Mail].
Read on for lots more information about Stephen Hawking, physics and other related subjects.
Stephen Hawking said his 'ultimate ambition' is to fly into space. And Richard Branson is going to help him with that. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
- Blum, Matt. "The Geekly Reader: George's Secret Key to the Universe by Lucy and Stephen Hawking." Wired. July 23, 2008. (June 18, 2010)http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2008/07/the-geekly-re-3/
- Boyle, Alan. "Hawking goes zero-G: 'Space, here I come.'" MSNBC.com. April 26, 2007. (June 18, 2010)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18334489/
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- MailOnline. "Mankind must colonise other planets to survive, says Hawking." MailOnline. Dec. 1, 2006. (June 18, 2010)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-419573/Mankind-colonise-planets-survive-says-Hawking.html
- Moskowitz, Clara. "Stephen Hawking: Aliens may not come in peace." CSMonitor.com. April 27, 2010. (June 18, 2010)http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0427/Stephen-Hawking-Aliens-may-not-come-in-peace
- PBS. "Stephen Hawking's Universe: Singularity." PBS. (June 18, 2010)http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/strange/html/singular.html
- Rodgers, Peter. "Hawking loses black hole bet." PhysicsWorld. July 22, 2004. (June 21, 2010)http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/19926