Stephen Hawking Turns 70

Stephen Hawking is one of the most celebrated scientists alive today. He has changed the way we view the universe and solved some of science’s greatest mysteries. He’s exposed the mainstream to the magic of physics, and is widely considered one of the greatest minds of his generation. He’s published and produced best-selling books and films, as well as appeared on countless television programs. And on Sunday he celebrated his 70th birthday – despite the fact that doctors predicted he wouldn’t survive past 25.

At 21, Hawking was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. A fatal disease that paralyzes the muscles of the body, there is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s. Yet Hawking has adapted over the years as his illness has progressed. Unable to speak without a voice synthesizer and confined to a motorized wheelchair, Hawking has nevertheless devoted his considerable intellect to the universe at large, with remarkable results.

Hawking first came into the public eye when he wrote A Brief History of Time in 1988. The book explained theoretical astrophysics in terms that even laymen could understand. A Brief History discusses everything from black holes to complex mathematics. It was a commercial and critical success, selling more than 10 million copies, and is still considered one of the best books in its field. The title of the book was later used for a documentary on Hawking’s life and work.

Hawking’s brilliant work and quirky humor have made him a welcome addition to popular culture. Besides his impressive intellectual achievements, he has appeared in numerous television shows and movies. In the animated TV series Futurama he poked fun at himself and his reputation by accepting a character’s assertion that he had invented gravity. He appeared as a hologram version of himself on Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing poker with Data, Albert Einstein, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Cambridge University honored Professor Hawking on Sunday with a conference to celebrate his birthday. Unfortunately, Hawking had just left the hospital due to an undisclosed illness and was unable to attend. He did record a greeting to his distinguished guests, showing that his famous intellect is still very much intact.

Most of Hawking’s speech was focused on the future, where his interests primarily lay. He spoke passionately of making the mysteries of the universe accessible to the public at large. He encouraged the study of interplanetary travel, insisting that humanity’s future exists among the stars and in colonizing distant planets. “I don’t think we will survive another thousand years with escaping beyond our fragile planet,” he said.

The overarching message of Hawking’s speech was curiosity in the world and universe in which we live. As he recounted his childhood and the family who helped him when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s (notably his father, who refused to give up on his son despite the doctor’s prognosis), he emphasized hope and the thirst for knowledge above all else.

“Be curious,” he concluded, “ 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.”

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