Stephen Hawking is so famous, you’d recognize his voice anywhere. But he also famously has ALS, which normally gives patients a very short time to live.
So who is Stephen Hawking, and how is it that he has lived so long with this disorder?
Hello world I’m going to tell something amazing about Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking is 74. You know him. He’s published over 200 papers and books.
IMDb has him appearing in 65 tv shows and movies as himself.
Hawking is an intelligent and popular mind in science and pop culture, in part because of his outrageous and cerebral theories on how the universe works, and also that he does it all from a wheelchair, with a computer synthesizer for his voice. But that’s not really why he became such a big deal in science.
In 1970, Hawking and his colleague Roger Penrose published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A proposing a new theorem for describing the Big Bang and how the universe began as a singularity… and will likely end as one.
See, in 1970, The Big Bang theory was still debated, but because of this paper (and others), it gained more credence! After that, through conversations with other physicists about black holes, Hawking came up with a way to stitch together two branches of modern physics — General Relativity and quantum Theory — basically, how the universe works on a macro level and a WAY smaller than micro level.
Another paper in Nature in 1974 proposes the idea that black holes (governed by general relativity) can emit radiation and explode, and a few years later in 1980, he works to unify general relativity and the beginning of the universe by describing the moments after the Big Bang using quantum theory.
These suggestions were also, and kind of obviously, super controversial.
Though today, physicists generally think Hawking Radiation does help black holes evaporate. He’s gone on to continue proposing these cockamamie ideas, all while his ALS makes him less and less physically able.
At age 21 he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS; also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease; though you’re likely familiar with it thanks to the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord; The word amyotrophic literally means no muscle nourishment. But the muscles aren’t what’s directly affected by ALS.
Instead, nerve cells (called motor neurons) in the brain and spinal cord degenerate. These motor neurons tell the body’s muscles to flex, so gradually, the brain loses control of its ability to command muscles.ALS affects everyone differently.
For example, there are two neuronal groups: the upper and lower motor neurons. If ALS degrades the upper motor neurons located in the brain: muscles will tighten and resist movement. If it hits the lower motor neurons in the spinal cord: the person will feel weak, get twitches, and their muscles will waste away. As ALS progresses, it will start somewhere and then spread to surrounding motor neurons, affecting muscles all over the body.
This can take away the ability to walk, write, speak, swallow, and breathe. Once the muscles don’t get commands, they begin to atrophy — or shrink.
There’s no cure, yet. And the ALS Association says half of the people diagnosed live three or more years, but only ten percent will live more than 10 years.
Though Hawking is still kicking it, figuratively speaking! For some reason, Hawking’s ALS didn’t affect his ability to breathe (which would deprive him of oxygen) or swallow (which could cause dehydration or malnourishment) — and left his face under his control.
We know he can move his face because that’s how he controls his computer voice! A set of letters, scrolls in front of him, and a twitch from the cheek (detected by the arm on his glasses) select a letter, then another, then words begin to appear as well. Though, there’s no guarantee this will work forever.
In the 1990s, he still had the use of his finger, but no longer.He lost the ability to speak, not because of ALS, by the way, but because of a terrible case of pneumonia, he acquired in 1985 while visiting CERN in Geneva.
Doctors in the UK gave him a tracheotomy to keep him breathing and he lost his ability to speak as a result. If you’re thinking (like I was) holy crap, this guy has had a lot of stuff happen to him. Just remember, this doesn’t keep Hawking down. He’s travelled the world, and experienced zero gravity, (he, in his computer-voice, told reporters after, " space, here I come.") and he told the New York Times in 2011, “I am lucky to be working in theoretical physics, one of the few areas in which disability is not a serious handicap.”And he’s kept his sense of humor, appearing on the Simpsons, Last Week Tonight, and more.
In 2002, a neurologist told the British Medical Journal, “I am not aware of anyone else who has survived with [ALS] as long.…the disease seems to have almost burnt out… This kind of stabilization is extremely rare”.
No one knows exactly why Hawking has lived so long with ALS, but it’s pretty clear that he is a unique mind and man.
When asked by the New York Times to give advice to others who may suffer from a disability, Stephen Hawking said, “Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically”.
Hawking has predicted many things in his lifetime, and he also thinks that for humanity to survive, we’re going to have to leave Earth.
Note: I wrote it before the death of Stephen Hawking
What’s your favorite thing about Stephen Hawking?
Why do you think he was cool?