Wednesday 22 November 2017

Roger Highfield: A brief history of a stellar career

Stephen Hawking's nurse offers me his hand to shake; it hangs limply as I take it. The devastating impact of the disease that has ravaged his body for almost 50 years is all too apparent. Yet I feel no pity -- only awe.

It was in 1963, then a 21-year-old PhD student at Cambridge, that Hawking was told that he had a type of motor neurone disease (today we know it as an atypical form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was given about two years to live. His illness was degenerative: it would attack the nerves that controlled his muscles, affecting first his body, then eventually his mood, senses and thinking.

On Sunday, Hawking will celebrate his 70th birthday. While his body was paralysed, Hawking used his mind to journey through the cosmos, glimpsing the origins of space and time. And that, indeed, is the story of his life: he is a man who has defied the laws of medicine in order to rewrite the laws of physics.

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