Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous living scientist and a symbol of the triumph of willpower over adversity, celebrated his 70th birthday on Sunday, revealing he did not learn to read properly until he was eight years old and that his schoolmates had made a bet that he “would never come to anything.”
A public symposium in Cambridge was told that, far from being top of the class, he was never more than half-way up.
“My classwork was very untidy and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers, but my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better,” he said. “When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled and, if so, which way it was decided.”
Unable to attend the event in person because of ill health, Hawking sent a speech which marked the culmination of four days of birthday celebrations organized by his colleagues at Cambridge University. The festivities were attended by the world’s leading cosmologists, including Nobel laureates Frank Wilczek and Saul Perlmutter, as well as celebrities such as Richard Branson.
Hawking’s laidback approach to education continued during his years studying physics at the University of Oxford.
“I did one exam before I went up, then had three years at Oxford with just the final exams at the end,” he said. “I once calculated that I did about a thousand hours’ work in the three years I was there, an average of an hour a day. I’m not proud of this.”
In his half-century career as a researcher, Hawking has been at the forefront of the understanding of black holes and quantum cosmology. His fame has also brought his ideas to a vast audience outside academia. His first book, A Brief History of Time, has reportedly sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and he has made guest appearances on The Simpsons and Star Trek.
In the speech, Hawking spoke of his early life growing up in the town of St Albans, north of London, and gave the highlights of his scientific career, but his main message was to “be curious” and never give up, however difficult things might seem.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he said. “Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
At about the age of 21, as he started his doctorate in Cambridge, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The first signs that something was wrong came after he fell over while ice skating on a lake near his childhood home in St Albans.
“At first I became depressed. I seemed to be getting worse pretty rapidly. There didn’t seem any point in working on my PhD because I didn’t know I would live long enough to finish it,” he said.
After his expectations had been reduced to zero, he said, he was only emboldened when he met his future wife, Jane, at a party.
“Getting engaged lifted my spirits and I realized, if we were going to get married, I had to do a job and finish my PhD. I began to work hard and I enjoyed it,” he said.
Other speakers in the public seminar at Cambridge University included Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, and Perlmutter, who won the Nobel prize in physics last year for the co-discovery of dark energy, the mysterious substance said to drive the expansion of the universe.
Kip Thorne, formerly of the California Institute of Technology and a longtime collaborator of Hawking, spoke of a “new golden age” in the study of black holes.
Attending the birthday celebrations, Virgin chief executive Branson said it was “wonderful to be celebrating his 70th birthday, which in itself is remarkable. He should have won the Nobel prize many times.”
Hawking finished his statement, to a standing ovation, by saying that it had been a glorious time to be alive and be a researcher in theoretical physics.
“Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the past 40 years and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution. The fact that we humans — who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature — have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph,” he said.