Read More: Scientific American Blog Network
Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But, amazingly, he lived on to the age of 76. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He become one of the most famous scientists in the world—acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books about space, time and the cosmos, and for his astonishing triumph over adversity. Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be a large as the odds I'd have given, back in 1964 when Stephen received his 'death sentence', against witnessing this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement sustained for more than 50 years. Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time. Stephen went to school in St Albans, near London, and then to Oxford University. He was, by all accounts, a 'laid back' undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first class degree in physics, and an 'entry ticket' to a research career in Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. But in other respects fortune had favored him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim.