Mind Over Body: Hawking’s Journey into the Cosmos and Beyond


Hawking, 2014.

A wheelchair carries one of the world’s most renowned physicists into the BAFTAs (Britain’s Academy Awards). Among this event’s many celebrated films is a biopic that depicts this incapacitated figure’s early life, scientific triumphs, and battle with his crippling disease. Though he is physically characterized in pop culture by a slacked jaw and slightly slumped figure, he is most known for his intellectual and innovative thinking in cosmology that has changed science forever, its effect still evident today. Fifty-two years after his initial diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), when he was given two and a half years to live, he has defied the odds of his debilitating disease and, regardless of his gradual muscle deterioration, now communicates with a single cheek muscle.

This man is none other than Stephen Hawking, author, professor, physicist, cosmologist, father, and husband, who has achieved much success with works of popular science and also received multiple honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Though these achievements are mind-boggling to a regular Joe, more so is his continued vigor and strength against ALS. It was a mere five years ago when doctors believed their long foretold fate for Hawking and his disease had finally come. On April 20, 2009, the day arrived that “doctors had foretold for decades.” Hawking was described as “very ill” and on “the cusp of death” at the hospital. It was as if his times of defying his condemnation at twenty-one were finally drawing to a close. However, he survived.

Now seventy-three years old, researchers are stunned by Hawking’s seeming ALS stabilization. An in-depth look into ALS explains exactly how unexpected Hawking’s present situation is. According to the ALS Association, the average lifespan of someone diagnosed with the disease is two and five years. Over 50% make it over three years, and 20% make it past five. The percentage drops from there, and less than 5% make it past two decades. Hawking is among that five percent and has made it through that two-decade mark not once but twice. The percentages drop so dramatically because the disease causes progressive degeneration of motor neurons that inevitably leads to death. Once neurons die, the brain loses the capability to initiate and control muscle movement. Impulses can no longer be sent to the muscle fibers that result in movement.

During these many years, through which Hawking has survived beyond the two year prognosis his doctor had initially made, he has brought the scientific world not only his innovative mind but also his groundbreaking theories, ideas, and efforts that make science accessible to everyone. Hawking’s research, which refuted the then-accepted information about black holes, first brought him recognition and turned him into a celebrity in 1974. He proved that matter, in the form of radiation, now named Hawking radiation, can escape the gravitational force of a black hole. Thus began his career of reshaping the way the scientific world regarded the universe. By thirty-two, he became a member of the Royal Society and became a recipient of the Albert Einstein Award down the road, among many other honors. As of the recent decade, he has published children’s fiction with his daughter, Lucy, a trilogy following middle schooler George and his friends as they discover various aspects of the universe. In 2012, he made news for participating in a trial run of a device called iBrain “designed to ‘read’ the wearer’s thoughts by picking up ‘waves of electrical brain signals'”. The same year, he played himself on the popular comedy show, The Big Bang Theory.

Eddie Redmayne as Hawking in "The Theory of Everything"
Eddie Redmayne as a Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”.

Just November of last year, a film was released, telling of his early life, his eventual marriage to Jane Wilde, and the progression of his disease. The title, The Theory of Everything, reflects his career-long quest to find a single unifying theory that combines cosmology with quantum mechanics to define how the universe began and link together all physical aspects of the universe.

With the variety of prestigious honors under his belt and his wide reach of influence into not only the scientific world but pop culture as well, there’s no saying what else he is capable of accomplishing, with technology racing to compensate for the physical abilities he may have lost due to his disease, his incomparable mind that searches for unfathomable answers like “humanity’s capacity for self-destruction,” and more. His mere existence defies all expectations of ALS established years ago, and his depiction on screen gives a face to the disease, bringing it even further into the spotlight after the surge of support for ALS Association through the Ice-Bucket Challenge. There is true potential for innovations, advancements, and change.