Famed British physicist Stephen Hawking turns 71 today. It’s an especially happy occasion, given that the former Cambridge professor, researcher and author of “A Brief History of Time” was only supposed to reach the age of 23.
When Hawking was initially diagnosed with motor neuron disease at 21, doctors gave him just two years to live. His condition is somewhat related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but it has progressed much slower than normal. Though nearly completely paralyzed, he is still able to communicate with a speech generator that responds to twitches of his cheeks. Researchers are currently perfecting a new device that would allow Hawking and other paralyzed people to form words with just their brainwaves.
Throughout his life, Hawking has worked to unravel some of the most basic mysteries of the universe, including the unification of Einstein’s general relativity theory with quantum mechanics.
“One consequence of such a unification that [Hawking] discovered was that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear,” Hawking’s website explains. “Another conjecture is that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time. This would imply that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science.”
Hawking is still working on research exploring this “no-boundary” quantum state of the early universe, though he manages to find time to co-author a few children’s books with his daughter, Lucy Hawking.
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Despite getting on in years, Hawking still manages to stir up conversation and controversy. In 2010, he published a book called “The Grand Design,” in which he cast doubt on whether physicists would ever be able to come up with a unified field theory, or a “theory of everything,” and he threw support behind M-theory, an 11-dimensional model that allows for the existence of multiple universes.
Throughout the years, Hawking has gotten a lot of things right, but has lost a few bets along the way -- last year, he had to cough up $100 to University of Michigan physicist Gordon L. Kane after scientists found a subatomic speck that appears to be the Higgs boson, a particle thought to be the reason that other particles like electrons and protons have mass. Hawking bet Kane years ago that the Higgs boson would never be found.
To satisfy another lost wager, Hawking gave a baseball encyclopedia to California Institute of Technology physicist John Preskill after conceding that he was wrong about a quirk of physics called the black hole information paradox. Hawking also broke into the office of another CalTech physicist, Kip Thorne, in order to covertly concede that the mysterious celestial object Cygnus X-1 was a black hole.
In 1991, filmmaker Errol Morris released a documentary about Hawking named after his most famous book. Though “A Brief History of Time” is hard to find on DVD or video, the whole film is available on YouTube.
Happy birthday, Mr. Hawking!