Stephen Hawking will be a speaker at the public symposium at Cambridge University to talk about how he has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe but he has left one mystery unsolved: How he has managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease.
The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Hawking, who turns 70, is lucky, because most people die within a few years of the diagnosis, called motor neuron disease.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s survived this long,” said Ammar Al-Chalabi, director of the Motor Neurone Disease Care and Research Centre at King’s College London. He does not treat Hawking and described his longevity as “extraordinary.”
“It is unusual for (motor neurone disease) patients to survive for decades, but not unheard of,” said Dr. Rup Tandan, a neurology professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Still, Tandan said many longtime survivors had ventilators to breathe for them – which Hawking does not.
Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Hawking’s subsequent theories have revolutionized modern understanding of concepts like black holes and the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.
To mark his birthday Sunday, Cambridge University is holding a public symposium on “The State of the Universe,” featuring talks from 27 leading scientists. For 30 years, he held a mathematics post at the university previously held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking retired from that position in 2009 and is now director of research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.
Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralyzed and in a wheelchair since 1970. He now communicates only by twitching his right cheek. Since catching pneumonia in 1985, Hawking has needed around-the-clock care and relies on a computer and voice synthesizer to speak.