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Professor Stephen Hawking

Worldwide Concern as Stephen Hawking Remains Hospitalized

April 21, 2009 06:15 PM
by Amy Goldschlager
Many have watched anxiously since news emerged that physicist and pop-culture icon Stephen Hawking was seriously ill, though doctors now say he’ll recover.

Prognosis Favorable for Beloved Physicist

World-renowned theoretical physicist and pop-culture icon Stephen Hawking is expected to recover from a serious chest infection that prematurely ended a U.S. lecture tour. Doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge report that professor Hawking is “comfortable.” Worldwide concern about Hawking’s health is so high that most of his Web site had to be taken down to keep up with server demand.

Biography: Stephen Hawking

Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on Jan. 8, 1942; as he likes to note, that date was the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. Hawking studied natural sciences at University College Oxford and then went on to do graduate work in cosmology at Cambridge University. By the time he was 22, he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological disease that eventually took away his ability to walk, speak and perform most voluntary movements. It is very rare for someone with Hawking’s condition to have survived for as long as he has; 95 percent die within the first 10 years.

After Hawking lost what remained of his voice to a tracheotomy in 1985, the CEO of a software company sent him E Z Words, a predictive speech program that works in conjunction with a voice synthesizer. These technological innovations have allowed Hawking to continue to share his cosmological insights with the world. Originally, Hawking used his right hand to operate the software, but his muscular control continues to degenerate, and he now uses his cheek muscles.
For many years, Hawking has conducted his research at the University of Cambridge; he is currently attached to Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. He also holds the prestigious Lucasian Chair in Mathematics, once held by Sir Isaac Newton; he had already announced plans to step down this summer, but intends to go on with his work as Lucasian Professor Emeritus.

For his work in theoretical physics, Hawking has earned numerous prizes, multiple honorary degrees and membership in the Royal Society; Queen Elizabeth has also granted him a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and made him a Companion of Honour.

Related Topics: Stephen Hawking’s science, pop culture appeal

In his quest to develop a unified theory of physics, Stephen Hawking has sought to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the universe: its basic structure, how it began and where it is going.

As part of that work, he has made some important theoretical discoveries about black holes, dense collections of matter from which it was believed that nothing could escape. Hawking has theorized that in fact, black holes would emit some energy; that energy is now known as Hawking radiation. When the Large Hadron Collider returns to operation, scientists hope to discover evidence that supports the existence of Hawking radiation.

Hawking has attempted to share his theories with a wider audience, publishing several books, including “A Brief History of Time” and “Universe in a Nutshell,” and appearing in TV science series. Last year, he prerecorded a 10-minute lecture for the TED annual conference, in which he discussed his thoughts about various important questions about the universe. For example, Hawking believes that there is no alien life at our level of civilization within several hundred light years; otherwise, we would have picked up their radio waves or some other reliable sign of their existence.

Despite his continued efforts to popularize his research, it’s a now-classic joke that most people who purchased Stephen Hawking’s bestselling book “A Brief History of Time” never got beyond the first chapter. However, even though very few people know much about Hawking’s cosmological theories, the man himself and his synthesized “voice” are instantly recognizable around the world; the general public seems endlessly fascinated by the dichotomy between Hawking’s brilliant, far-ranging mind and his extreme physical limitations. He has appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” His experiences during a zero-gravity flight in 2007 made international news.

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