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The indomitable spirit of Stephen Hawking

  • Published at 06:16 pm May 20th, 2018
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Stephen W.  Hawking, the Oxford-educated Cambridge physicist, whose work on gravity and black holes revolutionized modern Physics, died on March 14 at 76. 

The best selling author’s body was wheelchair-bound since his 20s, but, his brilliant mind roamed the cosmos, pondering the origin of the universe and becoming a symbol of curiosity and human determination to overcome adversity. Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the world’s imagination.

Hawking did that largely through his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, published in 1988. It has sold more than 10 million copies and inspired a documentary film. His life’s story was the basis of an award-winning 2014 movie The Theory of Everything. 

At age 21, Hawking learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular wasting disease. The disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements but left his mental faculties undamaged.

His mind went on to explore gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them. In 1973, he found that black holes would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons. In 2002, Dr Hawking said he wanted the formula for “Hawking radiation” to be engraved on his tombstone.

Hawking visited every continent, including Antarctica, attending scientific meetings; wrote best-selling books about his work; married twice; fathered three children; and appeared on The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory.

He celebrated his 60th birthday by going up in a hot-air balloon. Before his 65th birthday, he boarded a Boeing 727 flight that flew a roller-coaster trajectory to produce moments of weightlessness. Dr Hawking said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.”

On a trip to Switzerland in 1985, he came down with pneumonia. To save his life, doctors inserted a breathing tube. He survived, but his voice was permanently silenced.

A computer expert offered him a program called Equalizer. By clicking a switch with his still-functioning fingers, Dr Hawking was able to browse through menus that contained all the letters and more than 2,500 words. Word by word — and when necessary, letter by letter — he could build up sentences on the computer screen and send them to a speech synthesizer that vocalized for him.  

Even when too weak to move a finger, he communicated through the computer by way of an infrared beam, which he activated by twitching his right cheek or blinking his eye. The system was expanded to allow him to open and close the doors in his office and to use the telephone and Internet without aid.  His only complaint was that the speech synthesizer, manufactured in California, gave him an American accent!   

Asked what he thought about most, Hawking answered: “Women. They are a complete mystery.”

Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar