19 Mar Stephen Hawking – the man who defied the odds of zero
❝I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first❞ – Interview, the Guardian, May 2011
The news that Stephen Hawking had sadly passed away on Wednesday was the end of an era – arguably the most famous scientist of our time, and a scientific personality who not only inspired other scientists but also individuals to pursue their goals against adversity, and became a national and international treasure within our media and pop culture.
Stephen Hawking lived his life to the fullest and way beyond – floating in zero gravity at Nasa, taking part in The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Big Bang Theory, giving lectures to the world’s most eminent cosmologists for his 70th birthday, having the best selling science book in the past forty years – and yet this was a man who was given 2 years to live when he was just 21 years old.
❝My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus❞ – Interview. New York Times, December 2004
In the same year that Hawking started his PhD, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neurone disease that quickly robs people of the ability to voluntarily move their muscles. Within two years he was struggling to walk and talk, and yet the disease was actually developing slower than the original prognosis. His mind continued to be sharp at a level the majority of us can only imagine, and this young man with the bright future in academia and research had to start adapting physically so that he could continue his mental work to the best of his abilities, and enjoy his life to his potential.
We discuss on our Advance courses about the power of the brain to adapt to loss of limbs, sudden illness, loss of movement, and how the brain’s connections – the synapses – rewire themselves. By changing our thoughts and behaviour, we create new habits which strengthen the dendrites so that a new way of walking can become natural over time. Each time Hawking’s body became weaker, his mind had to adapt, and he appeared to be even stronger in his determination.
This man with so many complex thoughts needed to communicate his ideas to the world, and communication was vital for him to pursue his research and share it. Hawking’s “why” was so extraordinary, so huge for anyone to imagine – he wanted to explain and prove the start of the universe. He wanted to prove the start of life itself. No wonder he refused to let his body give up! He set himself a massive challenge, and not only needed to live to prove this, he needed to write his research for academics, and then he chose to reproduce it in A Brief History of Time to educate the masses.
Communicating his ideas became the continued adaptation of Hawking’s goals. This was a man who loved talking about ideas, discussing whether there is life on other planets, how the human race will survive, the destruction of our environment, religion vs science. He had so many complex ideas to discuss, and a very quick wit that was always ready with the flippant answer.
Hawking had to learn patience to communicate – and over the years, his patience had to increasingly strengthen to be able to speak. His determination to speak and not exist just in his own incredible mind sparked the focus of his brain. In his final years, Hawking communicated through the last one functioning muscle in his cheek. By twitching this muscle he could control the cursor on his monitor, scrolling to find the right word as Hawking slowly built each sentence which his computer voice could deliver.
That detailed focus on one cheek muscle was the result of the strengthened dendrites becoming increasingly effective through arduous practice. His achievements were so inspirational for people with disabilities who must learn to adapt to maintain their quality of life, and most importantly, break through the barriers against them.
❝My advice to other disabled people would be, 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❞ – Interview, New York Times, May 2011
Hawking also continued to inspire others to build more and more complex computers so that he could communicate. His inspiration empowered others to empower him.
Stephen Hawking defied the odds of zero for over fifty years. He was determined to pursue his studies of our universe, setting himself new theories to prove and to leave as a legacy for others to continue, as well as living the life goals many of us just dream about. He refused to give up on life’s gifts and the universe’s complexities.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”