Celebrating Stephen Hawking

Meet the man who changed our understanding of the Universe

By Google Arts & Culture

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Stephen Hawking

Isobel and Stephen Hawking (1942)

An Academic Start

Stephen William Hawking was born on 8th January 1942 in Oxford, England, the eldest of four children, of Dr Frank Hawking and Eileen Isobel Hawking. 

At the age of eleven, he went to St. Albans School and then on to University College, Oxford. His father, a distinguished doctor, wanted his eldest son to read medicine but Stephen wanted to be a mathematician, so they compromised on Natural Sciences instead.

Stephen Hawking at his graduation (1962) by Family photograph courtesy of Dr Mary Hawking

After graduating, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to do research in Cosmology as no one in Oxford was working in this field at the time. After gaining his Ph.D. under the supervision of Dennis Sciama he became first a Research Fellow and later, a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College.

Stephen Hawking at his graduation (1962) by Family photograph courtesy of Dr Mary Hawking

After leaving the Institute of Astronomy in 1973, he moved to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University. In 1979, he was elected to the Lucasian Chair, the post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. 

From 2009-2014, he was a Director of Research at the Department for Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics where he remained for the rest of his career. From 2014 his title was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research. 

A Hawking Radiation diagram (2015) by Andre Pattenden

Understanding the Universe

Stephen Hawking worked on the basic laws which govern the universe. With Roger Penrose he showed that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implies space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes. These results indicated that it was necessary to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics, the other great scientific development of the first half of the 20th century.

Stephen Hawking discovered that one consequence of such a unification was that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. This work was highly unexpected and very influential.

Great Observatories Unique Views of the Milky Way (2009-11-10) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/STScINASA

In 1970, shortly after the birth of his daughter and in a ‘eureka’ moment, Stephen realized, almost in an instant: 


That when black holes merge, the surface area of the final black hole must exceed the sum of the areas of the initial black holes, 


That this places limits on the amount of energy that can be carried away by gravitational waves in such a merger,


There are parallels to be drawn between the laws of thermodynamics and the behaviour of black holes.

A Hawking Radiation diagram (2015) by Andre Pattenden

Hawking Radiation

Because of Stephen Hawking’s work, the radiation emitted by black holes is now called Hawking Radiation. 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.

Stephen Hawking NASA 50th (2008-06-12) by NASA/Paul E. AlersNASA

Throughout his career, Stephen Hawking collaborated with many leading scientists, publishing a significant number of important scientific papers. Many of his students have gone on to become notable scientists.

A Brief History of Time - book jacket (2011)

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time was his first attempt to write a popular book about the physics of the start of the universe and turned out to be a runaway success, entering the Guinness Book of Records for its long stay on the best-seller lists.

It played a large role in him becoming one of the best publicly known scientists of his time. 

A Reception for Time Travellers invitation (2009-06)

A Time Traveller's Party

In 1990, with lifelong friend, the physicist Kip Thorne, Stephen approached the controversial notion of whether time travel is allowed by the laws of physics. 

To explore this hypothesis Stephen planned a party for time travellers. He wrote invitations, set a date, time and venue and provided precise GPS coordinates.

By Sam ShereLIFE Photo Collection

Stephen did not send out the invitations until after the party date was over. That way, only those who could genuinely travel back in time would know of it and be able to attend. 

On the due day Stephen sat politely and waited. But no-one came. And that was the point. “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible”, he said afterwards. And the champagne went back on ice. 

Stephen and Jane Hawking at Buckingham Palace (1989-06) by Unknown

A Man of Many Awards!

Stephen won the Adams Prize for his essay entitled, ‘Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time’, and which formed the basis for his first academic book, co-authored with George Ellis, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time.

He was awarded the CBE in 1982 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1989. He was the recipient of many awards, medals and prizes, including the Eddington Medal, Pius XI Gold Medal the Albert Einstein Award…

President Obama meets Stephen Hawking

… James Clerk Maxwell Medal the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the Fundamental Physics Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him by former President Barack Obama. He was also a Fellow of The Royal Society, a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, among many other fellowships and honorary posts. 

Stephen Hawking - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

A Dry Wit

Stephen Hawking brought his trademark humour to his status as a widely recognized scientific figure with appearances on shows including the Simpsons, Futurama, Star Trek and the Big Bang Theory. 

His wit and energy was shared with videos like this where he took part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. 

Paralympian, Margaret Maughan with the Paralympic torch (2012)National Paralympic Heritage Trust

A Tireless Advocate

In addition to his academic and popular work, Stephen Hawking was a tireless advocate for the rights of disabled people and became a source of inspiration to many through his life, work and through his speech at the Paralympic opening ceremony in London in 2012.

Stephen Hawking NASA 50th (2008-06-12) by NASA/Paul E. AlersNASA

He was a patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association and was an active supporter of many other charities. In 2015, he founded the Stephen Hawking Foundation to promote public engagement with science and research into all aspects of neuro-degenerative conditions. He was also a passionate supporter of the NHS, which he credited with his longevity along with the care he received from those who looked after him.

Stephen Hawking portrait shot (2015) by Andre Pattenden

Believing that his status as a scientist, his extraordinary life story and distinctive computerized voice gave him a unique public platform, he spoke out on a range of political and social issues such as nuclear disarmament and the dangers of technology to society. 

However, he retained his humility and would only say of himself that he was proud to have contributed to the field of cosmology and hoped his life and work had helped others.

Stephen Hawking 'It has been a glorious time to be alive' (2015) by Andre Pattenden

Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, shortly after his 20th birthday. Despite becoming wheelchair bound and eventually, dependent on a computerised voice system for communication, he combined his work in theoretical physics with  traveling the world to give public lectures about science.  

Stephen Hawking portrait shot (2015) by Andre Pattenden

He was deeply loved and admired by his family and his many friends and colleagues but also by millions of people he had never met as the worldwide reaction to the news of his passing showed. Stephen Hawking was a truly unique and outstanding individual and one whose life deserves celebration and commemoration.

Stephen Hawking interview

"Remember to look up at the stars, and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe.

Be curious, and however difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at; it matters that you don't just give up."

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