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Published:May 25th, 2008 08:00 EST
Stephen Hawking: Celebrity among Scholars

Stephen Hawking: Celebrity among Scholars

By Krzys Wasilewski

Hardly ever does an academic speech attract so many people that even the University of Leicester's largest lecture hall seems too small to accommodate everyone interested. But with Stephen Hawking nothing can be taken for granted. After all, he is the one who has turned modern astronomy upside down.

Stephen Hawking, a British physicist with more academic titles than anyone can remember, will address the University of Leicester's faculty and students on Wednesday, May 28. Not surprisingly, all 500 seats in the university's largest lecture hall were booked faster than tickets for any top-class pop concerts that the city hosts every week. “This is a fantastic opportunity to engage with a truly unique scientist whose work has gained the admiration of both the scientific community and the general public,” said Professor Rob Hillman, dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Leicester.

Aged 66, Hawking has lost nothing of his intellectual grip that allowed him to assume the position previously occupied by Isaac Newton. Like all great people, the British genius was also far from an exceptional student, which those who recently enrolled in the University of Leicester will find reassuring. In an interview given to the New York Times, one of Hawking's tutors admitted: “He was passing with his fellow students, but his unimpressive study habits gave him a final examination score on the borderline between first and second class honors, making an 'oral examination' necessary.”

In 1988, the colorful professor from Cambridge University published A Brief History of Time. This 224-page book, written in comprehensible language, presented Hawking's theory on the beginning of the world and its presumable end. One reviewer said that it helped ordinary people understand “the mind of God.” Rare for a popular science book, A Brief History of Time soon appeared on the London Sunday Times best-seller list and remained there for over five years. By 2002, it sold in some nine million copies, a record in that category of literature that is yet to be broken.

Over 20 years before the book popularized such terms as the Big Bang and black holes, which consume planets and digest them into energy, the professor's own world had drastically shrunk. Shortly after starting his doctoral studies at Cambridge University, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which affects all the muscles and makes breathing, walking, and other necessary activities impossible. It sounded like a death sentence for the young scholar until he realized that, although incurable, the disease could be contained. Undaunted, Hawking obtained his PhD, marrying a linguist student Jane Wilde in the meantime.

Like any genius, Stephen Hawking does not limit himself to Cambridge's dignified walls. Last year, he marked his 65th birthday by taking a zero-gravity flight, jumping and flying during weightlessness like a little boy. As for his next birthday, the professor is planning to go even higher, soaring in a special plane into sub-orbit. Richard Branson who, apart from being the billionaire owner of Virgin Airlines, is Hawking's close friend, has already promised to pay all the expenses. Confined to his wheelchair, space is the only place where he can feel truly free, figuratively and literally.

Far from being envious, Hawking's colleagues say that if they could speak and write as well as the author of A Brief History of Time, crowded lecture halls would become the rule rather than exception. Instead, the University of Leicester, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was caught by surprise when telephones kept ringing with people asking for Hawking's lecture. Within several hours, all 500 seats were booked.

What else could be expected from someone who was born 300 years after the death of Galileo and is compared – without exaggeration – to Newton and Einstein?

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