Stephen Hawking: "I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe"

Professor Stephen Hawking writes an intimate memoir of a remarkable life

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Stephen Hawking: "I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe"
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We lived in Highgate, in north London. My sister Mary was born 18 months after me, and I’m told I did not welcome her arrival. My other sister Philippa was born when I was nearly five. She was a very intense and perceptive child, and I always respected her judgement and opinions.

My brother, Edward, was adopted much later, when I was 14, so he hardly entered my childhood at all. He was very different from the other three children, being completely non-academic and non-intellectual, which was probably good for us.

I attended Byron House School, a very progressive school for those times. I remember complaining to my parents that I wasn’t learning anything. The educators at Byron House didn’t believe in what was then the accepted way of drilling things into you.

Instead, you were supposed to learn to read without realising you were being taught. In the end I did learn to read, but not until the fairly late age of eight. My sister Philippa could read by the age of four. But then, she was definitely brighter than me.

I was never more than about halfway up the class. (It was a very bright class.) My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the nickname “Einstein”, so presumably they saw signs of something better.

When we first moved to St Albans, I was sent to the High School for Girls, which despite its name took boys until the age of ten. At the age of 13, my father wanted me to try for Westminster School. Because my parents were not well off, I would have to win a scholarship in order to attend. I was ill at the time of the scholarship examination, however, and did not take it. Instead, I remained at St Albans School, where I got an education that was as good as, if not better than the one I would have had at Westminster.

When it came to the last two years of school, I wanted to specialise in mathematics and physics but my father was very much against it. He thought there wouldn’t be any jobs for mathematicians except as teachers. He made me do chemistry and only a small amount of mathematics. I’m now a professor of mathematics but I have not had any formal instruction in mathematics since I left St Albans school aged 17.

That year, I won a scholarship to Oxford to study physics. At that time, the course was arranged in a way that made it easy to avoid work. I once calculated that I did about 1,000 hours’ work in the three years I was there, an average of an hour a day. I’m not proud of this lack of work, but at the time I shared my attitude with most of my fellow students. We affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for.

One result of my illness has been to change all that. When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do.

In my last year at Oxford I noticed I was getting increasingly clumsy. I went to the doctor after falling down some stairs, but all he said was, “Lay off the beer”.

I became even more clumsy after moving to Cambridge. At Christmas, when I went skating on the lake at St Albans, I fell over and couldn’t get up. My mother noticed and took me to the doctor. He referred me to a specialist, and shortly after my 21st birthday I went into hospital. I was in for two weeks, during which I had a wide variety of tests.

They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and then injected some radio-opaque fluid into my spine and with X-rays watched it go up and down as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn’t tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis and that I was an atypical case. I gathered, however, that they expected it to get worse and there was nothing they could do except give me vitamins, though I could see they didn’t expect them to have much effect. I didn’t ask for more details, because they obviously had nothing good to tell me.

Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found to my surprise I was enjoying life. What made the difference was that I go engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I’d met about the time I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. This gave me something to live for.

If I were to get married, I had to get a job, and to get a job I had to finish my PhD. So I started working for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I found I liked it. Maybe it is not fair to call it work, though. Someone once said that scientists and prostitutes get paid for doing what they enjoy.

We got married in July 1965 and our first child, Robert, was born about two years later. I was not able to help much with the baby because of my increasing disability, and Jane had to cope largely on her own. Our second child, Lucy, was born about three years later, followed by Tim, who was born in 1979 after a trip to Corsica, where I was lecturing at a summer school.

Thereafter, Jane became more depressed. She was worried I was going to die soon and wanted someone who would give her and the children support and marry her when I was gone.

She found Jonathan Jones, a musician and organist at the local church, and gave him a room in our apartment. I would have objected, but I too was expecting an early death and felt I needed someone to support the children after I was gone.

I continued to get worse, and one of the symptoms of my progressing illness was prolonged choking fits. In 1985, on a trip to Cern (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, I caught pneumonia. I was rushed to hospital and put on a ventilator. The doctors there thought I was so far gone that they offered to turn off the ventilator and end my life.

But Jane refused and had me flown back by air ambulance to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. The doctors there tried hard to get me back to how I had been before, but in the end they had to perform a tracheotomy.

Before my operation my speech had been getting more slurred, so only people who knew me well could understand me. But at least I could communicate. However, the tracheotomy removed my ability to speak altogether. For a time, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter by raising my eyebrows when somebody pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. It is difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper.

However, a computer expert in California named Walt Woltosz heard of my plight and sent me a programme he’d written called Equalizer. This allowed me to select words from a series of menus on the screen by pressing a switch in my hand. I now use another of his programmes, called Words+, which I control by a small sensor on my glasses that responds to my cheek movement.

When I have built up what I want to say, I can send it to a speech synthesizer.

One’s voice is very important. If you have a slurred voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient. This synthesiser was by far the best I’d heard because it varies the intonation and didn’t speak like a Dalek from Doctor Who.

[Synthesiser maker] Speech Plus has since gone into liquidation. I now have the last three remaining synthesisers. They’re bulky, use a lot of power, and contain chips that are obsolete and can’t be replaced.

Nevertheless, by now I identify with the voice and it’s become my trademark, so I won’t change it for a more natural-sounding voice unless all three synthesisers break.

I started to become more and more unhappy about the increasingly close relationship between Jane and Jonathan. In the end I could stand the situation no longer, and in 1990 I moved out to a flat with one of my nurses, Elaine Mason. Elaine and I got married in 1995. Nine months later Jane married Jonathan Jones.

My marriage to Elaine was passionate and tempestuous. We had our ups and our downs, but Elaine’s being a nurse saved my life on several occasions. Eventually my condition took its toll on Elaine. We got divorced in 2007, and since the divorce I have lived with a housekeeper.

When I was 21 and contracted motor neurone disease, I felt it was very unfair. Why should this happen to me? At the time, I thought my life was over and that I’d never realise the potential I felt I had. But now, 50 years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life. I’ve been married twice and have three beautiful, accomplished children. I’ve been successful in my scientific career: I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emission from black holes is correct, though it has not so far earned me a Nobel Prize. It has been a glorious time to be alive. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe.

This is an extract from My Brief History by Stephen Hawking. You can buy it for £11.99 (usually £12.99) with free p&p. Call 01603 648 176. Your contract is with Bertrams.


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