Six decades of scientific genius

Physicist Hawking reaches a milestone

January 12, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE, England - They arrived armed with stories about a man and theories about the universe. They talked of a genius and friendship. And they celebrated a 60th birthday that some called "a miracle."

During a work week of parties and lectures, Cambridge University physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was lauded by colleagues as an original thinker, a cherished confidant and a gritty survivor who - despite all predictions to the contrary - has lived for decades after receiving a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The birthday week celebration ended yesterday with cheers, laughter and a stirring rendition of "Happy Birthday" as 400 friends and colleagues, many from labs and college campuses around the world, gathered for one last set of lectures on "the future of theoretical physics and cosmology," topped off by a speech from Hawking.

Wearing a red rose on his left lapel, grabbing a control to maneuver his wheelchair and speaking through a computer voice synthesizer, Hawking tried to sum up his career in a speech titled "60 Years in a Nutshell."

It turns out he almost didn't make it to the festivities surrounding his 60th birthday, which was Tuesday.

On Dec. 28, Hawking was speeding down a rutted Cambridge lane to meet his wife, Elaine, at an optician's office when he crashed his wheelchair into a wall and fell to the ground, breaking his right femur near his hip. Hawking was taken to a local hospital, where his femur was pinned and plated to stabilize the area and reduce the pain, his wife said.

He was bruised and broken, but apparently his humor was still intact.

"It was nearly 59.97 years in a nutshell," Hawking said. "I had an argument with a wall a few days after Christmas, and the wall won."

In his speech, he talked of his career, of arriving at Cambridge in 1962 to work with esteemed astronomer Fred Hoyle - only to discover the scientist was booked up. He was assigned to work with another equally compelling teacher, Dennis Sciama.

At Cambridge, Hawking embarked on a life of grappling with the basic laws of the universe, making groundbreaking discoveries on black holes and trying to determine the origin of the universe. Only later in his career did Hawking reach a wider audience with the publication of the best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

"It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics," he said. "Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 40 years, and I'm happy if I have made a small contribution. I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm."

"There's nothing like the Eureka moment, of discovering something that no one knew before," he added. "I won't compare it to sex, but it lasts longer."

The crowd laughed.

"I am very fortunate," Hawking said.

Then the crowd rose, and everyone sang "Happy Birthday."

They were admirers, family and friends, some of whom go back 40 years or more, when they were all bright, young graduate students.

Hawking's life is a tale of genius and fortitude. It was 38 years ago that he was found to have a motor neuron disease, and as he noted yesterday, he was "given to expect I didn't have long enough to finish my Ph.D. Then suddenly, towards the end of my second year of research, things picked up. My disease wasn't progressing much, and my work all fell into place, and I began to get somewhere."

Turning 60 seemed to be reaching a summit for Hawking, who has two sons and a daughter.

"He has been very excited about it," said Hawking's younger son, Tim, 22, who is studying French and Spanish at Exeter University. "Sixty years - he has done a good job."

Tim Hawking said his father "always looked to me very full of life. ... He doesn't look 60. He looks more like a 50-year-old."

Hawking's older son, Robert, 34, who works at Microsoft, said he flew in from the United States to celebrate his father's landmark birthday but said, "I haven't seen much of him."

The scientist was kept very busy during a week in which he put the final touches on a major speech and celebrated his birthday Tuesday in grand style with a dinner that featured a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who crooned to him, "I Want To Be Loved by You."

"With Stephen it's a miracle thing to celebrate his 60th birthday," said Professor Sir Alec Broers, the Cambridge University vice chancellor. "That's why I told the audience, `Let's celebrate his first 60 years and wishes for many happy returns.'"

Through anecdotes, his colleagues provided some flesh-and-blood tales to a seemingly solitary figure.

Gary Horowitz, a physics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, recalled coming to Cambridge in 1983 and having tea one day with Hawking. They talked of Hawking holding the prestigious post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, which was also held in 1669 by Isaac Newton.

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