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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking -- Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist and Bestselling Author

Often regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. Known for his compelling insights into such areas as Black Holes, relativity and quantum mechanics, and his contributions to popularizing science for the non-scientist

Since bursting onto the international scene in 1988 with his bestselling book, A Brief History of Time", Stephen Hawking has become synonymous with helping us understand fundemental mysteries of physics and our existence. But his penchant for science and challenging existing theories in physics began years earlier.

Stephen was born in Oxford, England in 1942 to Frank and Isobel Hawking. Despite family financial constraints, both parents had attended Oxford University, where his father had studied medicine and his mother, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His father was later promoted to head of the division of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research.

Although at school he was known as "Einstein", Stephen was not initially successful academically, often being described by his teachers as lazy, easily bored, and difficult. With time, however, he began to show considerable aptitude for scientific subjects, and soon decided to study mathematics as he made plans for college. Hawking's father however advised him to study medicine, concerned that there were few jobs for mathematics graduates. He wanted Stephen to attend University College, Oxford, (his father's own alma mater). As it was not possible to earn a degree in mathematics there at the time, Stephen decided to study physics and chemistry. Despite his school headmaster's advice to wait till the next year, Stephen was awarded a scholarship to Oxford after taking the entrance examinations in 1959.

After receiving a first-class Bachelor's of Arts (with honors) degree from Oxford, and following a trip to Iran with a friend, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1962. Stephen's first year as a doctoral student was a difficult one, including adjusting to his studies in relativity and cosmology. He also struggled with his health. He had begun to increasingly experience clumsiness during his final year at Oxford, including a fall on some stairs and difficulties when participating on the rowing team. The problems worsened, and his speech became slightly slurred; his family noticed the changes when he returned home for Christmas and medical investigations were begun. The diagnosis of motor neuron disease came when Stephen was 21. At the time doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years.

After his diagnosis, Stephen fell into a depression; though his doctors advised that he continue with his studies, he felt there was little point. At the same time, however, his relationship with Jane Wilde, a friend of his sister, and whom he had met and developed a romantic interest in shortly before his diagnosis, continued to develop. The couple were engaged in October 1964. Stephen later said that the engagement "gave him something to live for."

Why He's Important: Stephen Hawking, currently Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. Among his significant scientific works have been a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularities 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 forth a cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He is a vocal supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

He has been quite opinionated over the years, attracting public attention with a series of often-controversial statements that have generated insightful scientific discussions. For instance, he has asserted that computer viruses were a form of life; that humans should use genetic engineering to avoid being outsmarted by computers; that aliens likely exist and contact with them should be avoided; that life on earth is at risk due to "a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of." He views spaceflight and the colonization of space as necessary for the future of humanity.

He said recently: "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars."

Other Achievements: From 1979 to 2009, he held the prestigious post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge (the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663). Stephen has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; his book, "A Brief History of Time" stayed on the British Sunday Times best-sellers list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. He has since released other books aimed at making his work accessible to a wide range of people, these include "The Universe in a Nutshell", "A Briefer History of Time" and "George's Secret Key to the Universe", a children's book with a strong focus on science.

His achievements continue, despite his physical health. His motor neuron disease condition, which is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), has progressed over the years. He is almost entirely paralyzed and communicates through a speech-generating device. Since 2009, the disease has caused his breathing difficulties to increase, requiring him to use a ventilator at times and to be hospitalized. He married twice and has three children.

Stephen has received numerous honors for his work, including: the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America's highest civilian honor) which was presented by President Obama in 2009; the 1979 Albert Einstein Medal, and being named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 2002, he was named by the BBC (based on a vote in Britan) as one of the 100 Greatest Britons ever. Several buildings have also been named after him, including the Stephen W. Hawking Science Museum in San Salvador, El Salvador; the Stephen Hawking Building in Cambridge, and the Stephen Hawking Centre at Perimeter Institute in Canada.

In His Own Words: "For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk and we learned to listen."