Steven Hawking lived for 52 years with a debilitating disease but made remarkable scientific milestones. He died earlier this month aged 76 but his legacy lives on.

They wouldn’t have called him bright. His high school mates remembered him as an unremarkable student.  The only subjects he really grasped were Mathematics and Physics.

But the ‘unremarkable’ student went on to become a world renowned scientist and author who achieved revolutionary work in both physics and cosmology.

Despite having an active academic life, the scientist was confined to a wheelchair and needed 24-hour care.  

Hawking started experiencing physical problems such as slurred speech and balance issues while undertaking his undergraduate degree at Oxford University. He did not seek medical attention until 1963. Noticing his son’s symptoms, his father Frank took him to a doctor.

For two weeks, the student underwent a series of tests from his home. Shortly after his 21st birthday, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Hawking made remarkable discoveries [Photo: Courtesy]

With this realisation of impending death (he had only two more years to live), Hawking started concentrating fully on his research work.

At Cambridge where he was undertaking his postgraduate studies, his talents were acknowledged and he was encouraged to carry on his studies despite his growing physical disabilities.

Broken marriages

Two years after diagnosis, in 1965, he married Jane Wilde, a girl he had met shortly met shortly before he was diagnosed with the illness. Slowly, Hawking’s physical control over his body diminished. By 1969, he was forced to use a wheelchair and while the effects of his disease started to slow down over time, his thriving career was supplemented by his worsening physical state.

Hawking with his family [Photo: Courtesy]

He often recalled love playing a pivotal role in his emotional life. Marriage gave him, “the determination to live and make professional progress in the world of science.”   Together, they had three children: Robert, Lucy, and Timothy.

While Jane was a pillar of strength for Hawking in the beginning of their marriage, his regressing physical condition and increasing global popularity became a big burden and stress threatened the relationship.

Late in 1980, Hawking is reported to have had a romantic affair with one of his nurses, Elaine Manson, who he later married in 1995 after divorcing Jane in the same year. This new marriage proved to be detrimental to Hawking’s family life and he largely kept away from his children. He divorced Elaine in 2006.

His magic gadgets

Hawking’s physical condition increasingly deteriorated. He could no longer drive his wheelchair; he required a ventilator at times and was hospitalised several times. He was closely working with researchers on systems that could translate his brain patterns into switch activations.

Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

By the mid-1970s, he needed his graduate students to help manage his care and work. His speech had similarly become increasingly slurred, so that only those who knew him well could understand him. In 1985 he lost his voice for good following a tracheotomy and required 24-hour nursing care.

At this point, he was approached by a Californian computer programmer, who had developed a speaking program that could be directed using head or eye movements. The invention allowed Hawking to select words on a computer screen that were then passed through a speech synthesiser.

At the time Hawking, who still had use of his fingers, selected his words with a hand-held clicker. When he finally lost all control of his body, Hawking directed the program through a cheek muscle attached to a sensor. In spite of being wheelchair-bound and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication he continued with his research into theoretical physics, in addition to an extensive programme including travel and public lectures.

His final work and legacy

Shortly before he died, Hawking released an academic paper containing a ground-breaking mathematical explanation that would allow humans to test the existence of other universes.

Hawking at zero gravity [Photo: Courtesy]

The paper, A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation is currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal and may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy. It was co-authored by Professor Thomas Hertog from KU Leuven University in Belgium.

Colleagues have revealed that his final academic work was to set out the ground breaking mathematics needed for a spacecraft to find traces of multiple big bangs.

This new paper seeks to resolve an issue thrown up by Hawking’s 1983 “no-boundary” theory which described how the universe burst into existence with the big bang.

According to his initial account, the universe instantaneously expanded from a tiny point into a prototype of what we live in today, a process known as inflation.