Stephen Hawking: The accidental genius

Fêted by stars, envied by mere mortals, Britain's most famous cosmologist has unravelled some of the darkest secrets of the universe. But he is refusing to provide clues to an altogether more human mystery in which he has suffered a series of suspicious injuries...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A few weeks before his 60th birthday in January 2002, Stephen Hawking had a brief flirtation with death when his electric wheelchair careered out of control and he ended up in hospital with a broken hip. Later, at a lecture entitled "Sixty years in a nutshell", arranged by Cambridge University to celebrate his birthday, Hawking displayed his customary humour when he told his audience that he had been a quantum moment away from missing the event completely. "It was nearly 59.97 years in a nutshell," he said to laughter. "I had an argument with a wall... and the wall won."

But reported events last week have put Hawking's many accidents and injuries in a new light - and nobody is finding it funny. One of his former nurses has made serious allegations about the cosmologist's second wife, Elaine, and Cambridgeshire Police confirmed that they are investigating allegations of assault against a 62-year-old man whom they hope to interview shortly. Meanwhile, Hawking, who is in hospital recovering from pneumonia, remains resolute that there is "absolutely no substance" to the reports of his injuries and the supposed attacks. These were described in lurid detail in the same tabloid newspaper that had secured an interview with the one-time nurse, who is now living abroad.

The stakes were raised still further when Hawking's first wife, Jane, expressed her concerns - and the concerns of their three grown-up children - about the nature of her former husband's injuries. "I am extremely worried about him," she said. "He is a special man and a vulnerable man but when his children see the aftermath of these events, they can only tell him that he must do something about it."

Yet Hawking continues to keep silent, even to his closest friends and family, about who is carrying out the apparent attacks. For the first time, his son Tim publicly expressed his own uneasiness with his father's stance. "I'm very concerned. He denies it every time I speak to him about it and I would hope that he would respect me enough to tell me the truth," he said.

Anyone who knows Hawking, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, will testify to the man's strong, and some would say stubborn character. It is his undoubted belief in himself and his invincibility that has perhaps kept him alive 40 years after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, when doctors gave him just a couple of years to live.

Confined to a wheelchair, unable to move anything except a few fingers and facial muscles, Hawking has become the quintessential example of a brilliant mind trapped in a broken body. Yet the author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time hates pity just as much as he loves being the centre of attention. The astounding success of his book, which has sold some 25 million copies since it was published in 1988, had led Hawking to become a household name. He made a cameo appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation, when he was seen playing poker with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Later, he was depicted drinking at a bar with Homer Simpson, suggesting that he might steal Homer's ideas on the universe being doughnut-shaped.

Hawking has visited President Clinton at the White House and counts as his friends such Hollywood stars as Jim Carey, Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Costner. The man whose academic chair was once occupied by the puritan Newton also enjoys parties, fun and being outrageous - he was once pictured enjoying a cuddle with a raunchy blonde pole dancer at Stringfellows nightclub in London.

The media like to laud him as the greatest living scientist since Einstein and Newton, although scientists themselves cringe at the comparison. One leading physicist, Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University, said that Hawking's achievements have been overstated by the media. "His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have," Higgs once complained.

The comparison with Einstein and Newton is clearly inappropriate, as Hawking himself would probably acknowledge. "He wouldn't dream of saying anything like that," says someone who knows him well. "Newton and Einstein changed the face of science and Hawking would never claim to have done anything on that scale." His most famous scientific insight concerns the arcane physics of black holes. He discovered the phenomenon which has become known as "Hawking radiation" - where black holes leak energy and fade to nothing. "There is nothing like the eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before," Hawking said of his breakthrough. "I won't compare it to sex, but it lasts longer."

But Hawking radiation is not what he is famous for in a popular context. It is his ideas on space and time and the single, unified "theory of everything" which led him to make his most infamous pronouncement on knowing the mind of God. It was the sheer unfathomableness of his ideas that propelled him to A-list celebrity status.

Few would have predicted from his secure, middle-class upbringing that stardom would have been Hawking's destiny. He went to the same minor public school in St Albans as Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, and enjoyed a fairly conventional, if slightly bohemian childhood. The family car was a London taxi and holidays were spent in a gypsy caravan. He gained a first in physics at Oxford. It was there that he met fellow-student Jane Wilde, the woman he would marry after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Jane later wrote: "I wanted to find some purpose to my existence, and I suppose I found it in looking after Stephen."

They had three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim, but by 1990 the marriage had fallen apart and Hawking left his wife for Elaine Mason, one of his many nurses who by now had to provide round-the-clock care. In 1995 he divorced Jane and married Elaine, a wedding that generated gossip about the full extent of Hawking's paralysis.

Jane describes the final, painful years of her marriage in candid detail in her autobiography Music to Move the Stars. After years of struggling to keep her family together and nursing her ailing husband, Jane understandably felt resentful towards the woman who had replaced her in the affections of a proud and egocentric husband. The trouble was, she said, someone had come along who was prepared to "worship at his feet".

As his illness continued to progress, then so did Hawking's injuries. By 2000, he was a frequent visitor to the accident and emergency department of Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cam- bridge. He was known to be an erratic driver of his electric wheelchair and would often travel at breakneck speed, expecting other people - including vehicles - to get out of the way. Once there was a broken arm, on another occasion a broken wrist, and then a large gash on his face. He also sported black eyes and a torn lip. The police became suspicious and began to make inquiries about how he had sustained his many injuries. Could they all be the result of accident in his wheelchair? Or was he being assaulted?

The latest allegations have again raised questions about the private life of Britain's very own master of the universe. It is now for Hawking himself to answer police questions. But he has given every indication that he is only prepared to do so in his own time.