I owe it all to my father – Hawking marks milestone of 70th birthday
Illness kept him from his party, but the physicist still gave a moving talk about his life. Steve Connor reports
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Monday 09 January 2012
He was there in spirit, but sadly not in person. Stephen Hawking missed his own 70th birthday party yesterday at Cambridge University on doctor's advice – he was recovering at home from an infection that had put him in hospital for a few days last week.
The world's most famous living scientist, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21 and given just two years to live, nevertheless used a pre-recorded speech to deliver his birthday lecture.
The packed auditorium included the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, Professor Saul Perlmutter, the Nobel Prize winner in physics last year, the businessman Sir Richard Branson and the model and former Cambridge arts student Lily Cole.
In a highly personal talk, Hawking spoke movingly of the role his father played in picking him up from the devastating diagnosis when he was just beginning his PhD at Cambridge University – and how his doctor dropped him as a hopeless case and then never saw him again.
"My mother realised something was wrong and took me to the doctor," Hawking said. "I spent weeks in Bart's Hospital [in London] and had many tests. They never actually told me what was wrong, but I guessed enough to know it was pretty bad, so I didn't want to ask.
"In fact, the doctor who diagnosed me washed his hands of me, and I never saw him again. He felt that there was nothing that could be done. In effect, my father became my doctor and it was to him that I turned for advice."
His father, a researcher in tropical diseases at the Medical Research Council in Mill Hill, initially opposed Hawking's early interest in mathematics and wanted his son to pursue instead a career in medicine.
The title of Hawking's talk, "A Brief History of Mine", was a deliberate play on the title of his first popular science book, A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1988.
His friend and fellow cosmologist Kip Thorne joked yesterday during his own talk on the golden age of black holes that he measures the sales of his own popular science books in "milli-Hawkings".
Hawking said he decided to write a popular science book to pay for his rising care costs and the fees of his children's schools, although the main reason was because he enjoyed it, he said.
"I never expected A Brief History of Time to do as well as it did. Not everyone may have finished it or understood everything they read. But they at least got the idea that we live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand," he said.
His talk yesterday began with his birth on 8 January 1942 in Oxford, took in his early childhood in London, when he had a passionate interest in model trains (he even dreamt of electric trains), and ended with his current interests in the existence of many different universes, encapsulated in a revolutionary idea known as M-theory.
"M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. These multiple universes can arise naturally from physical law," he said.
"Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is, at times like the present, long after creation.
"Most of these states will be quite unlike the universe we observe and quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life.
"Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Thus our presence selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible with our existence.
"Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense lords of creation," Hawking concluded.
Hawking symposium: the Party guests
The model and actress Lily Cole, last year awarded a double first from Cambridge
Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and astronomer to the Queen
Professor Saul Perlmutter, the American astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics last year for the co-discovery of dark energy
Justin Rattner, Intel vice-president, who directs its research into microprocessors and communications
Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of the Virgin Group
- 1 Kermit the Frog has a new girlfriend named Denise
- 2 The excuses your boss is most likely to believe when you call in sick
- 3 Moscow voted the world's unfriendliest city
- 4 I'm pansexual – here are the five biggest misconceptions about my sexuality
- 5 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
The one chart that shows how George Osborne is almost certainly going to be our next Prime Minister
The excuses your boss is most likely to believe when you call in sick
Three-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish children told 'the non-Jews' are 'evil' in worksheet produced by London school
Bono's group has made more money from Facebook investment than from all his music
Wikipedia rocked by 'rogue editors' blackmail scam targeting small businesses and celebrities
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
£22000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role is a mixture of office...
£17100 - £20900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...
£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...
£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...