Stephen Hawking, now 71-years-old, has faced the possibility of his own death on a daily basis since his early 20s. Half a century ago, he was told he had two or three years to live, and yet, Stephen is not only still here, but he also has become a pop-culture icon.
Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who explained the big bang and black holes to an adoring public, suffers from ALS. The disease is attacking his motor neurons and has slowly rendered him motionless. For the first time, Hawking’s video biography (featured below) gives a full and candid view of what Hawking’s life is really like.
Facing his mortal threat with a powerful appreciation for life is just one of the things that set Stephen Hawking apart. Hawking is known for many things, including his brilliant mind, his quick sense of humor, and his best-selling first book, A Brief History of Time.
Stephen Hawking usually gives no hint in his public life of his daily struggles, though there are many. He manages to have kind words and even a joke or two for his many guests, visitors, and students.
Everyone knows that Stephen Hawking is largely unable to move or speak apart from his motorized wheelchair and electronic voice. Still, for most of his life, the wheelchair-bound genius has endured stoically and without much complaint.
Stephen Hawking talks by flexing his cheek muscle to control his famous computerized voice — Stephen has literally been typing with his cheek. It is one of the increasingly few muscles this brilliant man can still control. After he lost all use of his voice following a case of pneumonia, a way was discovered to allow him to speak electronically. A recent upgrade is allowing Stephen to “speak” more rapidly.
Stephen Hawking explained in the video below how he feels about his life.
“I have lived over two-thirds of my life with the threat of death hanging over me. Because every new day could be my last, I have developed a desire to make the most of every minute. Although I am 71 now I still go to work every day, at Cambridge University. Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has maintaining a sense of humor.”
Despite Stephen Hawking’s disability, he continues to travel, have adventures, and look toward the future.
Space quotes Hawking on this aspect of his life.
“I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero-gravity flight. One day, I hope to go into space.”
Many people wonder about Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair, his electronically created voice, and what his daily routine must be like. How did all this start? What was Stephen like before he was diagnosed with ALS?
Stephen Hawking’s parents were brilliant, eccentric, frugal, and well educated. His father, Frank Hawking, was a medical research scientist. His mother’s studies included philosophy, politics, and economics. Hawking had two younger sisters, Mary and Philippa.
John McClenahan, a boyhood friend of Stephen Hawking, described the Hawking household as full of books. There were bookshelves everywhere they would fit, with books wedged in every way possible. There just didn’t seem me to be enough room anywhere for all the books. Still, the household was not stuffy.
“The children had complete freedom,” McClenahan recalled.
Stephen Hawking attended Oxford College, and he admits it was very easy for him. He barely spent an hour a day on his studies, and the rest of the time was set aside for the Oxford rowing club and partying.
Stephen Hawking was once an active and healthy young man with a bright future ahead. But then an accident began to reveal an underlying problem the young genius was not prepared to deal with.
During Stephen Hawking’s final year at Oxford, he started to feel clumsy and physically awkward. Hawking fell down a long flight of stairs and was injured.
Still, Stephen Hawking graduated Oxford at the age of 20 and went on to Cambridge, where he began working toward his Ph.D. Stephen soon realized something was wrong. He tried to conceal his illness, but his symptoms were getting progressively worse. He hid his sickness even from his parents, but when he returned from Cambridge for Christmas, his parents noticed his difficulties.
Young Stephen Hawking was hospitalized over Christmas break for two weeks and endured a painful battery of tests.
Hawking is quoted by Biography as follows.
“They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio-opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with X-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn’t tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an atypical case.”
Stephen Hawking was later diagnosed with ALS. He was given two to three years to live, according to the video.
Mary Hawking, Stephen’s sister, said Stephen didn’t want to talk about it at the time. He immersed himself in the classical music of the composer Richard Wagner and quietly reflected on what was happening to him. Over the course of his life, it was always Wagner that Hawking turned to for comfort and inspiration.
Stephen’s illness progressed rapidly at first, but it soon slowed down. He was finally able to progress in his studies again. He met a girl, Jane Wilde, right before he was diagnosed. Falling in love with Jane gave him “something to live for.” Jane Wilde eventually became Jane Hawking.
Stephen Hawking never had to work hard at anything until graduate school at Cambridge. Stephen admits he got through Oxford without any effort. It wasn’t until he decided he would Marry Jane Wilde that he became motivated to try. Stephen worked hard for the first time at Cambridge and discovered that he liked hard work.
Stephen and Jane Hawking were married in 1965. Jane worked tirelessly to care for her physically debilitated husband and their three children,
Stephen Hawking’s ALS has proven to be a rare, slowly progressing form of the motor neuron disease. Gradually, over the course of decades, Stephen has become increasingly debilitated. Although Stephen was cared for exclusively by his wife, family, and with help from his graduate students for many years, eventually, a team of nurses was required.
Stephen and Jane Hawking grew apart, and Jane complained of the increasing loss of privacy that accompanied both his fame and his illness that eventually required round the clock nurses in the house. Eventually, the couple broke up, and Hawking married his favorite nurse, Elaine Mason, in 1995, according to Space. That relationship too ended in divorce in 2006.
Today, Stephen Hawking’s physical care is in the hands of a competent staff, but even his caregivers acknowledge that the world could lose Stephen at any given moment, and there is little that they could do to prevent it.
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Stephen Hawking has been facing impending death for half a century, but so far, he has continued on brilliantly, despite the constant threat.
[Featured Image by Matt Dunham/AP Images]