“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” —Stephen Hawking
Few scientists have the name recognition of Stephen Hawking. Hawking is famous for his contributions to math, cosmology, general relativity, and quantum gravity (especially black holes) and is the author of the bestselling A Brief History of Time. He is considered to be one of the greatest minds since Albert Einstein. Below are 42 facts about this acclaimed scientist.
42. Made Immortal by Space Capsule
Stephen Hawking contributed his digitized DNA to the Immortality Drive aboard the International Space Station, which contains full DNA sequences of select donors. The Immortality Drive works as a capsule of human DNA information in the case of a cataclysmic event on earth.
41. Just About Average
It would be natural to assume that Stephen Hawking exhibited his brilliance at an early age, but in fact, he was only an average student.
40. Late Reader
Stephen Hawking now admits that he didn’t learn to read until he was eight years old. His sister Philippa, on the other hand, was reading by the time she was four, and Hawking always thought she was brighter than him.
39. Born on a Significant Date
The day Stephen Hawking was born was also the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. This shared anniversary has long been a point of pride for Hawking.
38. It Runs in the Family
Hawking’s mother Isobel was admitted to Oxford University at a time when few women were able to go to college. His father also graduated Oxford, and was a respected researcher.
37. An “Eccentric Bunch”
A close family friend described the Hawking family as “an eccentric bunch.” They often ate their dinner in silence while each of them read a book, their car was an old London Taxi, and their house was fixer-upper that they never quite fixed. The family also kept bees in the basement and made fireworks in their greenhouse.
36. A Strong Sense of Wonder
Hawking’s father had always wanted him to go into medicine, but his mother recognized his early passion for science and the sky. She, along with Stephen and his siblings, would stretch out in the backyard to stare up at the stars. He “always had a strong sense of wonder,” she remembered.
35. Nicknamed Einstein
Despite his mediocre grades, Hawking’s teachers and peers obviously sensed something great in him, and gave him the nickname “Einstein.”
34. Constructed a Computer from Recycled Parts
As a teenager, Hawking and his friends loved board games, and would create games of their own. They also constructed a computer out of recycled parts that could solve basic mathematical equations.
33. No Math at Oxford
Hawking wanted to study mathematics at Oxford, but the school didn’t offer math as a specialty degree. He chose to pursue physics instead.
32. A Brilliant Slacker
Hawking was a self-proclaimed slacker throughout University, and confesses to having only spent about an hour a day focusing on his school work. Despite the lack of effort, he graduated with honors in natural science, and later attended Trinity Hall at Cambridge for a PhD in cosmology.
31. Row Your Boat
Hawking spent his first year at Oxford isolated and unhappy, but that changed when he was recruited to become a coxswain (the person who controls steering and stroke rate) on the school’s rowing team.
30. Ignored His Symptoms
Prior to his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Hawking would occasionally trip and fall or slur his speech. He ignored the problem and kept the symptoms to himself until his first year at Cambridge. When he came home for Christmas that year, his father noticed his condition, and took Hawking to see a doctor.
29. Two Years to Live
When Hawking was only 21 years old, he was given a heartbreaking diagnosis when doctors told him he had ALS and only had two years to live. However, Hawking was not a typical case: his ALS is slow-progressing, and 50+ years later, he’s still alive.
28. Situation Seems Tolerable
Hawking was devastated when he received his diagnosis, but a few things kept him from total despair. One was sharing a hospital room with a boy diagnosed with leukemia, which he says made him realize that relative to what his roommate was going through, his situation was “tolerable.”
27. He Still Had Things to Do
Shortly after being released from the hospital, Hawking says he had a dream that he was going to be executed. The dream made him realize that there were still many worthwhile things he could do with his life.
26. Something to Live For
At a New Year’s party in 1963, right before his diagnosis, Hawking met an undergraduate named Jane Wilde. They got engaged soon after, and married in 1965.
In a public lecture at Royal Albert Hall, Hawking admitted that the prospect of death gave him focus. He said “’When faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living and there are lots of things you want to do.” From then on, he entered a period of productivity that resulted in some of his earliest breakthroughs.
24. Believes in Aliens
During NASA’s 50th anniversary special in 2008, Hawking admitted that due to the vastness of the universe, the existence of primitive or intelligent alien life is possible.
23. Time Travel Party Experiment
Hawking once threw a party for time-travellers as part of an experiment to prove whether or not time travel was possible. The catch? He didn’t release the invitations until after the party, figuring that if nobody showed up (which they didn’t), then time travel, at least into the past, was probably not possible.
It could have looked like these!
22. Following In Isaac Newton’s Footsteps
Hawking was the 17th Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, one of the the most prestigious chairs in science. This is the same position that was held by Sir Isaac Newton from 1669-1702, and is sometimes called “the Newton Chair.”
21. Helped Prove that the Universe is Boundless
In 1983, Hawking and Jim Hartle combined the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics to prove that the universe is boundless. This discovery is one of Hawking’s major achievements.
20. Honorary Degrees
Hawking has been awarded twelve honorary degrees as well as numerous other honors for his work in science. Among them are the Albert Einstein Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
19. The Theory of Everything
For most of his career, Hawking has pursued what he calls “The Theory of Everything,” which is the idea that one unifying theory should be able to explain all aspects of the universe.
18. War Games
The inspiration for the character of Professor Stephen Falken in the popular 80s movie War Games was none other than Stephen Hawking himself.
17. An Information Paradox
Hawking’s theory of black holes stated that nothing could escape from them, and any information contained in them is lost when a black hole disappears. The laws of quantum mechanics state that information can never be lost, and his theory therefore created what he called “an information paradox.”
16. That Time He Lost a Bet
Hawking once made a bet with theoretical physicist John Preskill about black holes. Preskill disagreed with Hawking’s theory, and believed that information does escape black holes. Hawking’s new research has led him to change his mind about his original theories, and he was forced to concede the bet.
15. What Kind of Accent is That?
It’s well-known that Hawking uses a speech synthesizer to communicate, but many people have been puzzled about why it doesn’t have a British Accent like its user. As Hawking explains on his website, “I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech Plus. It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish.”
14. The New Voice of Stephen Hawking: Michael Caine?
For a 2017 Red Nose Day sketch, Stephen Hawking was filmed “auditioning” various actors to be his new voice. A-Listers from Liam Neeson to Rebel Wilson to Lin-Manuel Miranda vie for the role, but all fail for different reasons. In the end, Hawking bypasses the candidates and selects the voice of British actor Michael Caine.
13. Same IQ as Einstein
Hawking is frequently compared to Albert Einstein. Though their lives and achievements are different, one area where they are reportedly the same is in their IQs. Hawking’s IQ is recorded at 160, which is also Einstein’s estimated IQ (Einstein never took a modern IQ test).
12. Declined a Knighthood
Hawking declined a Knighthood from the Queen, explaining in interviews that he “dislikes the whole concept” of titles. His refusal was also due in part to what he sees as the UK Government’s “mishandling” of science funding.
11. Film Adaptation
The movie The Theory of Everything was loosely based on Jane Wilde’s memoir of her relationship with Stephen Hawking. Hawking gave the film a glowing review, and said of Eddie Redmayne in a Facebook post that “at times, I thought he was me.”
10. Playing Himself
Hawking has made multiple television appearances. He has been a guest star on Star Trek TNG, The Simpsons, Futurarma, and of course, The Big Bang Theory.
9. Was Once Played by Sherlock!
The Theory of Everything wasn’t the first time that Hawking has been portrayed in film. In one of his earliest roles, Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Hawking’s time as a PhD student at Cambridge in a BBC television movie.
8. The Star Trek Connection
In an episode of Star Trek TNG, Hawking was one of three great minds of science that Data used to create holographic recreations to converse and play poker with. Hawking is the only guest star to play himself in any of the Star Trek series.
7. First Vinyl Record Played in the Stratosphere
Hawking has the distinction of having lent his voice to the first vinyl record played in the stratosphere. The record “A Glorious Dawn” was part of the Symphony of Science Project, and featured the voices of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, as well as music arranged by John Boswell.
6. The Ride of a Lifetime
On his 65th birthday, Hawking was able to experience zero-gravity and float out of his wheelchair; this allowed him to leave his wheelchair for the first time in decades.
5. Up And Away
Richard Branson has given Hawking a free ticket for passage on the Virgin Galactic to go on a sub-orbital flight. Going into space has always been a lifelong dream of Hawking’s, but he never imagined that it would be possible.
4. Explaining Science to Children
Hawking’s nonfiction books about the universe have become international best-sellers, but he has also co-written a sci-fi trilogy, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, for children with his daughter Lucy. Their goal was to explain black holes and the universe to children.
3. Still No Nobel Prize
For all of his accolades, Hawking has never won a Nobel Prize.
2. Read by Millions
Hawking had a lifelong ambition to write a “popular” book about how the universe began; he wanted the book to be read by millions of people around the world, just like a “bestselling airport novel.” Despite the small initial first printing, his A Brief History of Time became an instant bestseller and has sold more than forty million copies worldwide.
1. A Simple Goal
Hawking is known for his efforts and his willingness to make science accessible for everyone. As he famously said: “My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all.”
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