In this series, Good Neighbor is highlighting notable individuals who overcame their disability or mental illness in ways that changed the people around them.
Stephen Hawking is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author. Despite struggling with a rare form of ALS for most of his life, Hawking has become one of the greatest scientists of our time.
Hawking was born in England in 1942. He studied cosmology as a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge and took a passionate interest in black holes (locations in space where nothing, not even light, can escape). He planned to spend a lifetime studying the universe and our place in it.
However in 1963, Hawking received a diagnosis that seemed to shatter his dreams.
He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease—which would later be known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—and given only two years to live.
He was only 21 years old.
Hawking fell into a deep depression as his body began to shut down. He slowly lost the ability to speak and write. He started using crutches. Then a wheelchair.
Despite his illness, Hawking earned his PhD and entered the scientific community.
His estimated time of death came; but Hawking lived on.
He continued his scientific research and eventually became one of the most influential living scientists. His career includes work in black holes, big bang theory, spacetime, general relativity, and much more. His research has continually reshaped how we think about black holes and other phenomena in our universe.
Although he has lost the ability to speak and move, Hawking continues to work and inspire. He now communicates through a computer that he controls by twitching his cheek.
At 76 years old, he is the longest known survivor of ALS.
In 2015, Hawking presented a new theory on black holes at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
In his presentation, Hawking argued that escape from a black hole could actually be possible.
“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought,” he argued, “Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly come out in another universe.”
Hawking ended his presentation with optimism for those who struggle.
“If you feel you are in a black hole, don't give up. There's a way out.”
It turns out, there’s a lot we can learn about ourselves and our mental health from black holes.