Profile: Stephen Hawking; Not just a great brain

The human drama of Stephen Hawking's life defies our wish to sanctify him, argues Angela Lambert
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The contorted face behind swot's specs is further twisted by a grimace that could be pain or might just be a smile. His head lolls above a skeletal body in a hi-tech electronic wheelchair. His voice emerges with agonising slowness in a robotic American accent, through a voice- box replacing his useless larynx.

For 20 years this image has been as famous as any media icon in the pantheon of fame. Be it Ali McGraw in the Seventies or Liz Hurley today, he is up there beside them. The difference is that while their stars flash briefly, the light of Professor Stephen Hawking shines steadily on.

His role as genius-martyr is unchallengeable. But in recent years he has acquired another, more human and more ambivalent dimension, that of a man apparently still avid for the pleasures of the flesh, despite a wasted body. This week, he announced that he plans to wed his former nurse, Elaine Mason, with whom he has been living for the last six years.

The world seldom chooses media stars from the ranks of quantum physicists. Hawking had enjoyed a certain degree of fame since the mid-Seventies, but it was his 25-million-selling book A Brief History of Time that catapulted him to world celebrity in 1988. Often unfairly described as the world's least-read bestseller, in fact - like its predecessor in the Fifties, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy - it has been crucial in helping ordinary people come to grips with big ideas about the world they live in, its ethical and cosmological puzzles.

Stephen Hawking was born on 8 January 1942, three hundred years to the day after the death of Galileo - a positively Nabokovian coincidence. He had an authoritarian father and a clever, sensitive mother. Stephen went to a minor public school but was not a brilliant or even particularly hard-working student. He claims that he only did an hour's work a day at Oxford when he went up in 1959 to read physics at University College. No matter: he still got a First.

In his final year, the first ominous inklings of his illness began to twitch and flicker at his nerve-ends. When the diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease - a degenerative and incurable condition that usually kills its victims within two or three years - was confirmed in 1962, he endured several months of near-suicidal depression, from which it is not too romantic to say that he was rescued by the love of a good woman. He met Jane Wilde, a student, at a New Year's Eve party in 1962. "This gave me something to live for," he said. They were married two and a half years later, in June 1965, by which time his illness was well-established.

Accepted as a postgraduate research physicist at the Physics Department at Cambridge - where he had hoped to work with Fred Hoyle - he was assigned to Dennis Sciama, an inspiring research adviser in relativistic cosmology. Hawking admitted much later, "This turned out to be a good thing. Hoyle was abroad a lot and I wouldn't have seen much of him. Sciama on the other hand was there, and was always stimulating." Soon afterwards he met Roger Penrose, a brilliant mathematician working on black holes, who brought him into mainstream theoretical physics. In 1975, at the early age of 32, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

By the time Hawking fathered his last child in 1970, he was so paralysed that his hands could no longer hold chalk or a pen. His wife, Jane, wheeled him from laboratory to lecture room at Cambridge, and to the parties at which he loved to flirt.

Hawking's theories can only properly be understood by a handful of physicists, so the public's fascination with him and his work is probably more due to the paradoxical combination of a brilliant mind - capable, indeed, of exploring the universe - trapped within a wasted body. His brain seems to transcend his body, while the robotic voice issuing from his speech- synthesiser adds to the impression that he is no ordinary man but a higher, almost disembodied being.

That illusion was shattered in 1990, when Professor Hawking left his wife and three children after 25 years of marriage, to live with one of his nurses. The belief that his mortal frame was no more than a frail support for his far-ranging mind was conclusively and shockingly disproved.

If the admission of an extramarital relationship was a reminder of his humanity, the prospect of Hawking's sexual activity also challenges our unthinking notions about what is decent and proper for the handicapped: that they should neither have nor want a sex life. He had already fathered three children, despite his body being stricken by increasing paralysis. He now compounded this by his infidelity (one cannot know precisely how unfaithful he was) to his devoted wife, the deeply religious woman who had shouldered the burden of raising their children as well as attending, for most of their life together, to his bodily needs.

Hawking is probably the only person in Britain who could have forced us to confront the unpalatable and, to some, downright disgusting idea that even the most severely handicapped people may still be sexually active. The conventional imagination, nurtured by images of perfectly taut and youthful bodies, flinches from the vision of someone like him having an affair. How can he? we ask, guiltily aware of the prurient ambiguity of the question.

In this and other respects, Hawking is not an uncomplicated hero, and he is certainly no saint. His academic success called for immense will- power but his illness forced him to be demanding and ruthlessly egotistical. He has relied upon the unselfish devotion of dozens, scores, of more or less anonymous people. It is they who enabled him, not to think - that is the one thing he can do unaided - but to lecture, travel, publish and share his brilliant thoughts with the scientific community and the public.

Great fame and sudden wealth make monsters of most people (and Hawking's Brief History has certainly earned him millions). His normally reticent former wife permitted herself to remark this week of his impending marriage: "He is in the grip of forces that he can't control and these are forces which broke up our home." His 25-year- old daughter Lucy says, "I have not yet decided whether to attend the wedding."

What sort of person can construct a beautiful and spectacular theory of the shape of time and space; write a world bestseller that attempts to make it relevant and comprehensible to the ordinary reader; beget children despite the massively debilitating effects of MND; and yet abandon the wife who supported him for 25 years?

This may be Stephen Hawking's ultimate and greatest heresy. He undermines the comforting belief that handicap, pain and suffering ennoble; he punctures our pious wish that great men should also have great moral qualities; and he disproves the fastidious 20th-century myth that the sexually active are strong and comely. He is, in more than merely cerebral fashion, a great iconoclast of our time.