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Stephen Hawking: The incredible life of the brightest star in world of science

Stephen Hawking, the world's most inspiring physicist, has died at the age of 76. Here, Nick Curtis pays tribute to the man who changed our understanding of pretty much everything

Honest portrayal: Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking at the 2015 Baftas, where The Theory of Everything won three awards
Honest portrayal: Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking at the 2015 Baftas, where The Theory of Everything won three awards

It may seem ridiculous to say it, when motor neurone disease confined his body to a wheelchair and reduced his voice to an electronic burr, but Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, was the scientist as rock star.

Before him, scientists in popular culture had been eccentric, comic figures, like Magnus Pyke or Patrick Moore. Without him - and he leaves a terrible void - there would be no Professor Brian Cox.

Hawking managed to convince the public that abstruse theories on cosmology and quantum mechanics could be explicable to all.

Although A Brief History of Time, which spent 237 weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list, was arguably more bought than read, he communicated a heady sense of wonder in the universe and was a great promoter of science through the popular media as well as his studies at Cambridge.

The image of the giant mind trapped in the crumpled body, and the immense struggle that suggested, was a potent one.

He could lend that image to The Simpsons and Star Trek, or his voice to the Pink Floyd song Keep Talking. There were shades, even, of rock star arrogance to him, and scandal around the break-up of his first marriage and the suggestion he was being controlled or abused in his second. The writer Ken Campbell, who explored his ideas in a stage show, recalled an annoyed Hawking deliberately running over his foot.

But the 2014 film of his life, The Theory of Everything, for which Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his warm but unsparing portrait of Hawking, underscored the extraordinary tenacity of a man not expected to live past 23.

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In 2007, I interviewed his first wife, Jane, about the revised version of her book, Travelling to Infinity, which formed the basis of the film. It was clear she still loved him and remained in awe of his mind, and it was also clear he'd been impossible to live with.

Until the end of his life, he remained a powerful voice in debates, whether on space or threats to the NHS, which had kept him alive. Scientists have noted that he died on March 14, or 3.14 - the number of Pi.

Hawking should have been a Londoner, but his mother gave birth to him in Oxford to escape German bombing in 1942.

He initially was not considered overly bright, although he passed his 11-plus a year early and in his teens built a computer out of clock parts with his friends. He couldn't study maths, as he'd hoped, at his father's alma mater, University College Oxford, so he opted for physics and chemistry. He became a social figure, coxing for the college boat club, but in his final year began to suffer periods of dizziness and occasional falls. He graduated with a first in natural science and went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to continue his studies, in cosmology.

It was in his first year, in 1963, that he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Doctors gave him two years to live. But he had already started dating graduate student Jane Wilde, and the two got married in 1965. Hawking said she gave him something to live for.

Extraordinarily, they never seem to have discussed the challenges that beset their marriage. Wilde was a Christian and Hawking eventually came out as a rationalist atheist. Although a scholar in her own field of medieval Spanish poetry, she accepted it was her role to manage the home as he worked. They had a son, Robert, in 1967 and a daughter, Lucy, in 1970. By the end of the 1960s, he had been forced to give up crutches for a wheelchair and could no longer write. His ability to speak deteriorated over the next decade.

When he took up a year's post at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, he accepted his wife's suggestion that a graduate student should help with his care. Later, in 1977, an organist called Jonathan Hellyer Jones became absorbed into their family.

He and Jane fell in love, but her third child with Hawking was born in 1979, when he had been appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge and had extremely limited movement. He almost died after contracting pneumonia on a visit to CERN in 1985, after which his round-the-clock care was undertaken by three nurses. A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, went on to sell an estimated nine million copies.

In 1990, Hawking left Wilde for one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whose husband had adapted the voice synthesiser for his wheelchair, and married her in 1995. The first draft of Wilde's book, untangling these years, caused a stir. Subsequent suggestions that Mason had alienated him from his children and grandchildren - and a police investigation into possible abuse - added notoriety to his fame.

If none of his more recent work had quite the bombshell effect of A Brief History, it didn't matter. He had become something bigger than himself.

Who can forget Hawking losing a bet that the Higgs boson would never be found, the image of him floating in zero gravity on a "vomit comet" flight, his participation in the 2012 Paralympics, his endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn in opposition to Conservative policies on the NHS in 2017?

Who among us can have confronted a life so full of challenge and lived it so fully and so well?

Belfast Telegraph


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