With a heavy workload, financial stress, and balancing a social life, college can at times seem like a drag. Is the stress and hard work of all of this in college really worth the piece of paper at the end of these four or possibly six or eight years of toil? Just as millions of college students have experienced, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking also struggled to find meaning in his education. It is hard to believe that someone that is largely considered one of the greatest thinkers of modern times could possibly think this of his college years. When your life is put on a timer, school is the last of your priorities.
At only seventeen years old, Stephen Hawking entered the prestigious Oxford University and wanted to study physics and math, but to keep his father happy he ended up studying physics with chemistry rather than mathematics. During his first year, Hawking battled with feelings of isolation, as he did not make many friends, as his classmates were much older than he was.1 He thrived but was not very happy most of the time he was there. Loneliness is a very common thing for college students to go through, as for many, it is the first time away from home. Frankly, adjusting can be difficult, but more so at such a competitive school like Oxford.
However, things began to look up for the future scientist as, during his last year an an undergraduate, he joined the rowing club and went to parties with this friends.2 With his undergraduate degree in the books, Hawking turned his focus on cosmology, a sub-section of astronomy that is dedicated to discovering the origins of our universe. When he began his graduate career in the mid-sixties, Hawking slowly began to lose control of his body. For some reason, he was getting clumsier and clumsier, and fell for no reason at all.3
After a visit with a specialist, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease slowly breaks down the tissue in the nervous system that affects movement.4 While brain function was not affected at all, Hawking slowly but surely would lose control of his body until he died. After his diagnosis, he was only given two-and-a-half years to live.5 His new-found academic happiness was short-lived as he was now living only to die. His years as an undergraduate were now seemingly wasted, as he could not finish his PhD at his new school Cambridge in the limited amount of time he had left.
While initially depressed, a series of events led Hawking to use his limited time wisely. First, while in the hospital, he saw a young boy across from him die from leukemia, which made him realize that while he may have it bad, others have it a lot worse.6 Secondly, he had a dream that he was going to be executed, and he came to the realization that, while he was initially bored with life, there was still a lot left that he wanted to do.7 Lastly and most importantly, he became engaged to his first wife, Jane Wilde. Reflecting back on her significance, Hawking said, “the engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for. It made me determined to live. Without the help that Jane has given I would not have been able to carry on, nor would I have had the will to do so.”8 Cambridge wanted to help Hawking continue his work, and while they could not make the exception of letting him get his PhD early, they helped in the quality of his life by helping him find closer housing, since Hawking could no longer walk far.9
His disease developed much slower than expected, and with everything falling into place for Hawking, he began making his landmark discoveries in the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. He suggested that the universe must start at a singularity (a point in time where the matter in the universe is infinitely dense) and from then on explodes with a “big bang.”10 Backed by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it was very difficult to argue with the math behind the landmark theory.
A major part of Hawking’s life was that he wanted to make physics accessible to the everyday person. With this in mind, he wrote books such A Brief History of Time and Black Holes and Baby Universes, as well as help write and produce science movies such as The Theory of Everything. He also refused to let his disability stop him from doing whatever he tried, and to live as normal a life as possible, and take as many opportunities as he could.11 Sadly, we lost a great mind as he passed away on March 14, 2018, which just so happened to coincide with Einstein’s birthday. Hawking defied odds throughout his career as he outlived his initial “death sentence” by more than fifty years. While he can no longer provide further discoveries, he has brought inspiration to a new generation of physicists. Many look up to Newton and Einstein and say they want to be like them, but now many look up to Hawking and say the same.