In A Nutshell
The brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking is the most famous sufferer of ALS. He was diagnosed with the condition when he was 21, and was told that he hadn’t long to live. Hawking is now over 70 years of age.
The Whole Bushel
Stephen Hawking is a remarkable man in so many ways. For three decades he was the Lucasian Professor of Cosmology at Cambridge University, a post previously held by Sir Issac Newton. During his tenure, he showed that for general relativity and the universe’s expansion to be valid, a singularity must have occurred when the universe came into being. Hawking also found that black holes emit energy when particles are formed in their proximity. His most famous work was A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988 and addressed the fundamental questions of the Universe. The popularity of this book is reflected in its four-year grip on the top spot of the Sunday Times non-fiction list, the nine million copies that it sold, the television series that was derived from it, and the abridged version for children that was released in 2001.
All of these achievements have been attained by a man who has spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair, requires round-the-clock care and can only communicate through a computer system which he operates with his cheek. Hawking is in this position because he suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This is a neurodegenerative condition which can affect many areas of the brain, including the motor neurons, which are found in the brain’s frontal lobe and are responsible for muscle control. The average life span for sufferers is usually two to three years after they have been diagnosed. Hawking was diagnosed when he was only 21 years old and was told that he would not see 25.
That Hawking has managed to live far beyond the timeframe he was allotted may have something to do with the young age that he was diagnosed at. His condition may be a variation of the juvenile-onset disorder, which is a slow working version of ALS. That Hawking is now over 70 years old and is still mentally sharp suggests a glacial progression of his disease. In any event, the non-motor elements of his brain have clearly been spared degeneration of the kind that his body has been afflicted with.
If it were otherwise, Hawking could not be operating as the director of research at Cambridge’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, which is his current post at the university. While his case is remarkable, ALS sufferers can derive little comfort from it as there is still no cure for the disease and Hawking’s case is one that happens to very few sufferers. He is, to quote Pennsylvania University’s ALS Center director Leo McClusky, “an outlier.”
In a perverse way, one could say that the illness was a spur for the work that has won Hawking such renown. His illness was diagnosed when he first entered Cambridge as a graduate student, having done his undergraduate work at Oxford. Discovering the universe’s origins has been an obsession since then, and he has never stopped working at it. To quote the man himself: “All my life I have lived with the threat of an early death, so I hate wasting time.”