Stephen Hawking Teaches Us About Life

Stephen Hawking

While Stephen Hawking has received a great deal of attention lately regarding his newly-expressed support for assisted suicide,  his life teaches us a very different lesson:  no matter how limited your life may appear on the surface, there is nothing stopping you from achieving your dreams.

When Hawking was first diagnosed with motor-neurone disease – also known as amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease – when he was just 21 years old, he had a very harsh reality in front of him.  Even though he was in the prime of his life, he had a disease which would cause him to gradually lose voluntary control over his body movements, swallowing, speaking and even breathing.  He would, in fact, be dependent upon others to care for him for the rest of his life, which was predicted to be very short, lasting perhaps only a handful of years.

In his new book My Brief History, Hawking describes feeling at this time “that my life was over and I would never realize the potential I felt I had.”  Yet, his life, currently spanning just over seven decades, has far exceeded anyone’s expectations, including his own.

Hawking is known first of all  as a brilliant physicist.  Early in his distinguished career, he worked with another scientist, Roger Penrose, to develop the math necessary to understand Einsteins’s general relativity.  Then, he went on to tackle black holes, making huge contributions to the understanding of this phenomenon.  And, finally he worked in the area of cosmology, seeking to expand our understanding of the universe as a whole.  In recent years, he has been a strong advocate for the idea that colonizing space is a necessary step towards ensuring our survival as a species.

In addition to his lifetime achievements as a scientist, Stephen Hawking has also found time to be a best-selling author, with one of his many books, A Brief History of Time, remaining on the Sunday Times bestseller list for an unheard of four years.  And, due to his success with his books, he has become quite well-known for his ability to teach the average person about science.  His work as an author is especially impressive when one considers that he cannot type or dictate his words in any sort of normal fashion.   He has a computer setup made especially for him which allows him to select words on the computer screen by using a handheld switch.

Surprisingly, however, Hawking has also left his mark in the field of entertainment and pop culture.  He has demonstrated his comedic chops by appearing as himself in episodes of both The Simpsons and Star Trek, as well as performing sketches with comedian Jim Carrey.  He has also met dignitaries along the way like Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II and, in 2013, he was invited to open the London Paralympic  Games.

Although his personal life has not gone as smoothly as it could have, Hawking has also been able to have a family.   He has two children with his first wife, Jane, whom he married shortly before his diagnosis and remained married to for twenty-five years.  He was married to his second wife, Elaine, from 1995 t0 2006.

While it is impossible for anyone but Stephen Hawking to speak to whether his life was a life worth living, it does show we can do much more than we imagine; no matter how bad our circumstances may seem.

Written by:  Nancy Schimelpfening

Institute of Physics

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