Dr Mohamad Amin Malik
The disabilities, health issues and failures in life make people lose all hopes. British cosmologist and physicist Stephen Hawking believed that “however bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” Hawking was an extraordinary soul. His life was a rich tale of success against adversity. While living with the devastating condition of incurable motor neuron disease for more than a half century, he made his mark as renowned theoretical physicist and a celebrated author. At the age of 76, when he left this world, he was considered the smartest man of our generation and world’s most famous scientist after Albert Einstein. He was not only a motivation for beating death and disability but was a classic example of great courage, intelligence, indomitable will and positive attitude. He will remain an inspiration to all, particularly the people with disabilities, health issues and those who go through unbearable levels of psychological pain, depression and hopelessness.
In 1963 after arriving at Cambridge University for PhD, Stephen Hawking at his 21st birthday started developing symptoms of a serious illness known as motor neuron disease, a kind of sclerosis in which body becomes unable to send message from brain to voluntary muscles. It results in muscle twitching and gradual deterioration of muscles that leads to difficulty in swallowing, speaking and eventually breathing. The doctors gave him only two years to survive. It was devastating news for Hawking and his family. Surprisingly his illness stopped progressing rapidly after he met a literature student Jane Wilde who later became his first wife. He started using wheelchair at the end of the 1960s. Hawking’s speech deteriorated and by the late 1970s he could be understood by his family and close friends only. After a throat operation in 1985, Hawking lost his ability to speak and had been using electronic voice synthesizers to communicate with others.
Hawking recalls in one of his interviews that “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” In his memoir ‘My Brief History’ Hawking writes “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life, there had not seemed to be anything worth doing…Another dream I had several times was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I was going to die anyway, I might as well do some good.” With the sudden realization that he might not even live long enough to earn his PhD, Hawking dedicated all his energies towards research. He believed this disease helped him to become the scientist he was. Confined to wheelchair for nearly five decades, he increasingly relied on the advancements of technology not only to get around, but to communicate his ideas to the world. His first communication system was operated by a hand clicker. He retained enough muscle control to allow him to press a clicker using his right hand thumb to select icons on his monitor and control his wheelchair, doors etc. With cursor he chose alphabets to form complete sentences to be sent to the voice synthesizer.
However the nerve that allowed Hawking to move his thumb for clicker kept on deteriorating. By 2008, Hawking’s hand was too weak to use the clicker. Hawking had been using this computer-based communication system made by Intel Corporation since 1997 which has dedicated team of engineers that constantly worked on improving his communication system and enhancing the number of tasks he could perform, to cope with his gradual loss of control over his muscles. With just a small amount of motor function left, mainly in the muscles of his face, was the only communication link of Hawking with the world. He used just a few twitches of his cheek to express himself. The infrared switch mounted on his spectacles catched the slightest twitches as an input for the computer software for navigation. This allowed him to talk, check emails, browsing Internet, making notes and use Skype to chat with friends. As Hawking once remarked that- “Medical science has not cured me so I rely on technology”.
Despite these extreme difficult circumstances, Hawking contributed not only to the world of science but his books and public appearances made him an academic celebrity. He achieved numerous extraordinary breakthroughs pertaining to the theory of the origin of the universe especially black holes, general relativity, quantum gravity and the theory of everything. He published many books. Some of his famous books include Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Theory of Everything etc. His masterpiece and one of the iconic books of the twentieth century ‘A Brief History of Time’, published in 1988, became a bestseller which sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years. Hawking remained the recipient of many awards/medals/prizes and many positions and honors. He received twelve honorary degrees. He was the Fellow of The Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of freedom, the highest civilian award of US. He has an Oscar winning movie out about him ‘The Theory of Everything (2014)’.
His disabilities never held him back from reaching the brilliant heights. Hawking’s strong character teaches us the value of true education, ignoring the unfair hand our lives have dealt with us. Few years back at the Royal Institution in London on the eve of his 74th birthday, Hawking sent a message to the depression sufferers by making a poetic comparison between depression and a black hole. “black holes are not as black as they are painted…it is possible to escape from a black hole of despair…..so if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out” . The renowned physicist died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours on Wednesday. Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking.
(The author is Associate Professor Higher Education Department J&K)
Dr Mohamad Amin Malik