Handicapped, but Not Held Back: Stephen Hawking

Hawking as an undergraduate at Oxford | Courtesy of The Telegraph
Hawking as an undergraduate at Oxford | Courtesy of The Telegraph

With a heavy workload, financial stress, and balancing a social life, college can at times seem like a drag. Is the stress and hard work of all of this in college really worth the piece of paper at the end of these four or possibly six or eight years of toil? Just as millions of college students have experienced, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking also struggled to find meaning in his education. It is hard to believe that someone that is largely considered one of the greatest thinkers of modern times could possibly think this of his college years. When your life is put on a timer, school is the last of your priorities.

Stephen Hawking (far right) participating in Oxford’s rowing team | Courtesy of The Gaurdian

At only seventeen years old, Stephen Hawking entered the prestigious Oxford University and wanted to study physics and math, but to keep his father happy he ended up studying physics with chemistry rather than mathematics. During his first year, Hawking battled with feelings of isolation, as he did not make many friends, as his classmates were much older than he was.1 He thrived but was not very happy most of the time he was there. Loneliness is a very common thing for college students to go through, as for many, it is the first time away from home. Frankly, adjusting can be difficult, but more so at such a competitive school like Oxford.

However, things began to look up for the future scientist as, during his last year an an undergraduate, he joined the rowing club and went to parties with this friends.2 With his undergraduate degree in the books, Hawking turned his focus on cosmology, a sub-section of astronomy that is dedicated to discovering the origins of our universe. When he began his graduate career in the mid-sixties, Hawking slowly began to lose control of his body. For some reason, he was getting clumsier and clumsier, and fell for no reason at all.3

After a visit with a specialist, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease slowly breaks down the tissue in the nervous system that affects movement.4 While brain function was not affected at all, Hawking slowly but surely would lose control of his body until he died. After his diagnosis, he was only given two-and-a-half years to live.5 His new-found academic happiness was short-lived as he was now living only to die. His years as an undergraduate were now seemingly wasted, as he could not finish his PhD at his new school Cambridge in the limited amount of time he had left.

Aboard a zero-gravity flight, Hawking would experience weightless ness for the first time | Courtesy of The New York Times

While initially depressed, a series of events led Hawking to use his limited time wisely. First, while in the hospital, he saw a young boy across from him die from leukemia, which made him realize that while he may have it bad, others have it a lot worse.6 Secondly, he had a dream that he was going to be executed, and he came to the realization that, while he was initially bored with life, there was still a lot left that he wanted to do.7 Lastly and most importantly, he became engaged to his first wife, Jane Wilde. Reflecting back on her significance, Hawking said, “the engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for. It made me determined to live. Without the help that Jane has given I would not have been able to carry on, nor would I have had the will to do so.”8 Cambridge wanted to help Hawking continue his work, and while they could not make the exception of letting him get his PhD early, they helped in the quality of his life by helping him find closer housing, since Hawking could no longer walk far.9

His disease developed much slower than expected, and with everything falling into place for Hawking, he began making his landmark discoveries in the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. He suggested that the universe must start at a singularity (a point in time where the matter in the universe is infinitely dense) and from then on explodes with a “big bang.”10 Backed by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it was very difficult to argue with the math behind the landmark theory.

Professor Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA, at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge..Photograph © Jason Bye.t: 07966 173 930.e: mail@jasonbye.com.w: http://www.jasonbye.com.

A major part of Hawking’s life was that he wanted to make physics accessible to the everyday person. With this in mind, he wrote books such A Brief History of Time and Black Holes and Baby Universes, as well as help write and produce science movies such as The Theory of Everything. He also refused to let his disability stop him from doing whatever he tried, and to live as normal a life as possible, and take as many opportunities as he could.11 Sadly, we lost a great mind as he passed away on March 14, 2018, which just so happened to coincide with Einstein’s birthday. Hawking defied odds throughout his career as he outlived his initial “death sentence” by more than fifty years. While he can no longer provide further discoveries, he has brought inspiration to a new generation of physicists. Many look up to Newton and Einstein and say they want to be like them, but now many look up to Hawking and say the same.

  1. Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen W(illiams) (1942-).”
  2. Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen W(illiams) (1942-).”
  3. Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen W(illiams) (1942-).”
  4. L. Fleming Fallon Jr, An Overview of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), in Lou Gehrig’s Disease, edited by Sylvian Engdahl (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 16-24.
  5. Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen W(illiams) (1942-).”
  6. Stephen Hawking, A World Famous Scientist Tells about His Life With ALS, in Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 101.
  7. Stephen Hawking, A World Famous Scientist Tells about His Life With ALS, in Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 101.
  8. Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen W(illiams) (1942-).”
  9. Stephen Hawking, A World Famous Scientist Tells about His Life With ALS, in Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 103.
  10. UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2003, s.v. “Hawking, Stephen,” by Laura B. Tyle.
  11. Stephen Hawking, A World Famous Scientist Tells about His Life With ALS, in Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 100.

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This Post Has 63 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Julia Deais

    This article about Stephen Hawking has many life lessons that are important to me personally. I admire how he still kept a positive outlook on his life, even though the doctor only gave him 2 1/2 years to live. Its also very admirable that one of the only things that kept him motivated was his wife. That shows that he truly did love her. This gave me a whole new perspective on life because if I was only given a certain amount of time to live, I would live in the present because every day is a gift.

  2. Avatar
    Brianna Ford

    This article was very informative about Hawking’s life. Its astonishing that at age 17 he attended the prestigious school of Oxford University. That shows how bright and intelligent Hawking was. However is sad to know he felt alone while in college, no one should ever feel isolation like that. It is amazing that he defied all odds leaving more than the attended years given to him. Hawking left a legacy of knowledge and expertise for the world to have until the end of time.

  3. Avatar
    Montserrat Moreno Ramirez

    Stephen Hawking has left a major legacy behind. This man has not only left us knowledge about his area of expertise, but he gave us a reason to want to improve ourselves, be better and never give up no matter the odds. In the end he found happiness, love and completeness, and I think that’s whats important, that such an intelligent man was not all about discovery, but he decided to live life at the fullest, for the time he had left. He was a very impressive, intelligent and unique man.

  4. Avatar
    Megan Copeland

    Steven Hawking was so inspirational in that he did not let his illness get in the way of his life. He tried his best to live his life to the fullest. I had heard of ALS before, but I never knew how severe or fatal it was until I read this article. It is so sad that such an intelligent man was paralyzed by this disease. He realized that some people had it worse than him and he decided to make the best of his time. I believe that Hawking should be a role model to a lot of people.

  5. Avatar
    Andrea Cabrera

    It is astonishing how he did not let his health problems be obstacle of his bright future. Stories like are inspirational that anybody can achieve what they really want if they put their mind and soul into it. Despite his two-year life he continued to do research showing us to never give up no matter how little time you can have.

  6. Lyzette Flores
    Lyzette Flores

    I totally agree with Stephen about finding meaning in our education. I am pleased to see that after all, he did seem to find some meaning. It is phenomenal that he did not let his health problems determine his future. This gives me inspiration that anybody can achieve what they really want if they put their mind and soul into it.

  7. Avatar
    Mason Meza

    Stephen Hawking was a great inspiration to all. He never let his disability get ahead of him. For someone so young to lose control over his body is scary and sad. My mom had a co-worker who died of ALS but even with the disease she was always the happiest person in the room. She never let it get the best of her which is exactly what Hawkings did. He made a great career from what he had, and outlived his hypothesized life by over 50 years. It is truly astounding what one can do.

  8. Avatar
    Rylie Kieny

    Stephen Hawking is an incredible man that the world should never forget. He discoveries along with defying all odds makes him and idol for many. I love how this article included his dream and seeing the young boy in the hospital. That was something I never knew yet was so pivotal in his new found desire to live. I think that we can all use him as an example for moving forward. Despite his disabilities and predicted two year life sentence he never quit. He continued to do research, publish books, and have a positive impact on society. He is what it means to never give up and take advantage of the time you have no matter how little.

  9. Avatar
    Lamont Traylor

    I find it so cruel how often people that have the most to lose and are trying to do something with their life, get it taken away such as Stephen Hawking’s was. I admire his passion and drive to finish what he had started even with his condition. I wonder what he would have accomplished if he was not stricken by illness.

  10. Avatar
    Alexandra Lopez

    Reading this article informed me about the personal aspects of Hawking’s life that I had not known about. Many who look up to great minds seem to forget that they were once young adults who experienced what we (students) experience as well. The author of this article took a great perspective on the life of Hawking’s life and career making him relatable yet undeniably a fighter for his life.

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