Hawking too ill to attend 70th birthday celebrations
It was meant to be an opportunity for the world's most famous living scientist to reflect on a remarkable career in front of an audience of friends and peers.
But Professor Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday speech was given added poignancy last night when the eminent physicist was forced to cancel at the last minute after failing to recover from an infection.
However, the professor's distinctive voice still rang out across the Cambridge hall, as guests including Richard Branson and Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, listened to a pre-recorded version.
Prof Hawking's lecture, entitled 'A Brief History of Mine', covered his life and work from his birth in Oxford to his theories on black holes and the formation of the universe.
He disclosed that he did not learn to read until the age of eight and that despite earning the nickname "Einstein" at school he was never more than halfway up his class.
"When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything," said Prof Hawking. "I don't know if this bet was ever settled and, if so, which way it was decided."
Prof Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease, always records his speeches in advance but uses muscles in his cheek to play each sentence when delivering them live. Last night, these sentence-cueing duties were taken by an assistant, while projected photographs covered his absence from the stage.
The lecture was punctuated with laughter as the professor lived up to his reputation for dry humour and witty one-liners. In a moving address, Prof Hawking described how his diagnosis with motor neurone disease at 21 had helped transform him from a gifted but lazy student into one of the world's most eminent academics.
Doctors initially gave him just a few years to live, but almost 50 years on his most famous book, 'A Brief History of Time', has sold more than 10 million copies and his fame has been cemented with guest appearances on 'The Simpsons' and 'Star Trek'.
Speaking about the impact of his initial diagnosis, he said: "At first I became depressed. I seemed to be getting worse pretty rapidly. There didn't seem any point working on my PhD because I didn't know if I would live long enough to finish it.
"But then the condition developed more slowly and I began to make progress in my work. After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus".
The professor admitted he had worked for just an hour a day while an undergraduate at Oxford, but said the news of his condition, along with his engagement to his first wife, spurred him on.
Prof Hawking reflected on his life as a "glorious time to be alive" and said he was happy to have made a "small contribution" to our understanding of the universe.
He concluded: "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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)