As an undergraduate at Oxford University, Stephen William Hawking was a wise guy, a provocateur. He was popular, a lively coxswain for the crew team. Physics came easy. He slept through lectures, seldom studied, and criticized his professors. That all changed when he started graduate school at Cambridge in 1962 and subsequently learned that he had only a few years to live.
The symptoms first appeared while Hawking was still at Oxford. He could not row a scull as easily as he once had; he took a few bad, clumsy falls. A college doctor told him not to drink so much beer. By 1963 his condition had gotten bad enough that his mother brought him to a hospital in London, where he received the devastating diagnosis: motor neuron disease, as ALS is called in the United Kingdom. The prognosis was grim and final: rapid wasting of nerves and muscles, near-total paralysis, and death from respiratory failure in three to five years.
Not surprisingly, Hawking grew depressed, seeking solace in the music of Wagner (contrary to some media reports, however, he says he did not go on a drinking binge). And yet he did not disengage from life. Later in 1963 he met Jane Wilde, a student of medieval poetry at the University of London. They fell in love and resolved to make the most of what they both assumed would be a tragically short relationship. In 1965 they married, and Hawking returned to physics with newfound energy.
Also that year, Hawking had an encounter that led to his first major contribution to his field. The occasion was a talk at Kings College in London given by Roger Penrose, an eminent mathematician then at Birkbeck College. Penrose had just proved something remarkable and, for physicists, disturbing: Black holes, the light-trapping chasms in space-time that form in the aftermath of the collapse of massive stars, must all contain singularities—points where space, time, and the very laws of physics fall apart.
Before Penrose’s work, many physicists had regarded singularities as mere curiosities, permitted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity but unlikely to exist. The standard assumption was that a singularity could form only if a perfectly spherical star collapsed with perfect symmetry, the kind of ideal conditions that never occur in the real world. Penrose proved otherwise. He found that any star massive enough to form a black hole upon its death must create a singularity. This realization meant that the laws of physics could not be used to describe everything in the universe; the singularity was a cosmic abyss.
At a subsequent lecture, Hawking grilled Penrose on his ideas. “He asked some awkward questions,” Penrose says. “He was very much on the ball. I had probably been a bit vague in one of my statements, and he was sharpening it up a bit. I was a little alarmed that he noticed something that I had glossed over, and that he was able to spot it so quickly.”
Hawking had just renewed his search for a subject for his Ph.D. thesis, a project he had abandoned after receiving the ALS diagnosis. His condition had stabilized somewhat, and his future no longer looked completely bleak. Now he had his subject: He wanted to apply Penrose’s approach to the cosmos at large.
Physicists have known since 1929 that the universe is expanding. Hawking reasoned that if the history of the universe could be run backward, so that the universe was shrinking instead of expanding, it would behave (mathematically at least) like a collapsing star, the same sort of phenomenon Penrose had analyzed. Hawking’s work was timely. In 1965, physicists working at Bell Labs in New Jersey discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the first direct evidence that the universe began with the Big Bang. But was the Big Bang a singularity, or was it a concentrated, hot ball of energy—awesome and mind-bending, but still describable by the laws of physics?