Stephen Hawking Dies at 76

Nicky Broyd

March 14, 2018

Professor Stephen Hawking, the much loved and brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who managed to throw light on the mysteries of black holes, has died. He was 76.

At the age of 21 he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) and given 2 years to live.

However, he went on to become one of the most celebrated scientists of our time. In his autobiography he tells how the prospect of an early death urged him onward.

He also cared deeply about the NHS and in December he began legal action against the secretary of state for health and social care, Jeremy Hunt, and NHS England, over the introduction of accountable care organisations (ACOs) without parliamentary approval and a full public consultation.

Tributes

The Motor Neurone Disease Association says Professor Hawking inspired millions with his determination to continue to live his life to the fullest – despite his illness.

Cambridge University said Professor Hawking was "Widely regarded as one of the world’s most brilliant minds", and he was "known throughout the world for his contributions to science, his books, his television appearances, his lectures and through biographical films. He leaves 3 children and 3 grandchildren. All of us at the University of Cambridge will miss him greatly."

Paying tribute today, British astronaut Tim Peake said on Twitter: "He inspired generations to look beyond our own blue planet and expand our understanding of the universe. His personality and genius will be sorely missed."

The US space agency NASA tweeted: "His theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring. May you keep flying like superman in microgravity, as you said to astronauts on @Space_Station in 2014."

Achievements

Stephen Hawking went to University College Oxford, where he read physics and received his degree. Afterwards he went on to do research in cosmology at Cambridge where he spent most of his career.

Regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein, from 1979 to 2009 Stephen Hawking held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

During his life he received numerous international and academic honours including over a dozen honorary degrees. He was awarded a CBE in 1982, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1989 - but is reported to have turned down a knighthood over, amongst other things, the government's funding of science. In 2009 he received America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

To those outside the intensely academic world of scientific research, perhaps his biggest achievements were his inspiring and accessible science books, including the bestseller, A Brief History of Time.

Interestingly, in a speech he gave in October 2016 at a neurological conference, hosted by Headway in Suffolk, Professor Hawking said his 3 children were: "the best achievements in my life – if you can call children achievements."

Motor Neurone Disease

Motor neurone disease is an umbrella term for all forms of the disease. In the US it is more commonly known as ALS ( amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or sometimes Lou Gehrig's disease.

There are several forms of MND and ALS is the most common type, and also the type Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with.

Whatever it's called, it's an incurable, progressive disease that attacks the neurons that control a person's voluntary muscles. Over time, those muscles are unable to function and waste away. In advanced stages of the disease, patients lose mobility in their limbs, have difficulty with speech, swallowing, and breathing.

No one knows precisely why someone develops the disease and there is no specific test to see if you have it, but you are more likely to get MND if you are a man aged between 50 and 70 years old.

Eventually, the disease causes the diaphragm to fail, making it impossible to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator. Most people with ALS will die from respiratory failure.

In the UK 6 people a day are diagnosed with MND. A third of those will die within a year and more than half will die within 2 years of diagnosis. However, about 10% of those with ALS will survive for 10 years, or longer.

Some people with MND may experience changes in their thinking and behaviour, but only a few will have severe cognitive changes.

Eventually Professor Hawking required round-the-clock care but said MND was no barrier to him thinking, achieving or getting on with life - he just had to find new ways of doing things.

At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London he said: "However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at."

Computer Communication

In the mid 1980s Professor Hawking contracted a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. He survived but had to have a tracheotomy. Before the operation his voice had already been failing and only those who knew him well could understand what he was trying to say, now he had no voice.

Source: Ruby/Alamy

However, a computer expert from California sent him a voice program which he had used ever since. As the disease progressed different versions became necessary. The most recent was controlled by just a cheek muscle.

What didn't change was the unmistakable synthesised voice, described at different times as Scandinavian, American, and Scottish. Despite more natural voices becoming available Stephen Hawking said he identified with his computerised voice and had no intention of changing it.

Longevity

MND progresses at different rates in different people, but living for as long as Professor Hawking did with the disease is extremely rare.

It's not thought his survival is down to his brilliant brain, but may have something to do with his genetic make-up and which parts of his motor function were most affected by MND.

Professor Hawking was a great believer in the NHS and said during his life that it was Britain's finest public service.

Dr Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, who directs the ALS centre at the University of California US, says patients who are diagnosed at a younger age tend to live longer and believes the kind of care Professor Hawking received may have played a large part in his longevity.

SOURCES:

hawking.org.uk

MND Association

Facebook

Twitter

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

NHS Choices – Motor neurone disease

Dr Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, PhD, director, ALS Center, University of California San Francisco

The White House press office

The Independent

Headway, Suffolk

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