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Stephen Hawking: A Profile

FRIDAY 2nd August 2002
With his passion for "the precision of mathematics" and his concern for the cosmos, Stephen Hawking could have been just another dishevelled Cambridge don, with humble ambitions to unlock the beginning of time.

But his ability to translate space-speak into words us earthlings can understand, together with the onslaught of a devastating medical condition, have produced, instead, a scientific superstar.

"What can one do, but carry on?"

If a professor stereotypically struggles with the requirements of daily life, for Stephen Hawking it is harder than most. Just before his 21st birthday and in his final year as an Oxford undergraduate, he was diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease.

Originally given a life expectancy of a further two years, Hawking has now lived a further forty, always asking the question, "What can one do, but carry on?"

Carrying on has involved two marriages, three children and a huge body of scientific work. Oxford's Lucasian Professor of Mathematics since 1979, Hawking's studies into quantum physics, thermodynamics and relativity have brought breakthroughs in radiation and "quite literally shed light on black holes".

Galaxy guru

Commercial success has followed. Already confined to a wheelchair and deprived of his voice in 1985 by a bout of pneumonia, Hawking in 1988 published the most popular scientific book ever. A Brief History of Time has been translated into 30 languages, sold more than nine million copies and sealed Hawking's status as a galaxy guru.

Hawking the personality is a strong brand. While his peers question some of his ideas, there is no doubting the commercial appeal of the vulnerable figure, providing clues to the universe via his Dalek voice-box. Hawking's appearance on The Simpsons cemented his international status.

Nibbling away the final frontiers

Last year, he produced another tome, The Universe in a Nutshell, and with his PhD students, he is producing the next generation of original thinkers. He continues to nibble away himself at the final frontiers but, with his scientific reputation built on mathematical journeys into the past, Hawking makes no plans for the future. He says, "If I knew what I would be working on in ten years, I would be doing it now."

While his peers may not consider him to be in the league of such luminaries as Einstein and Shrodinger, his true contribution may lie in his very singularity, and personification of pure, disembodied intellect. Limited by his chair, he is totally accessible, and, without a voice, he remains a supremely articulate and good-humoured communicator.