Learn more about the renowned British scientist, professor, and author who spent his entire career trying to answer the question: "Where did the universe come from?"
Stephen Hawking was born exactly three hundred years after the death of the scientist Galileo, so maybe it was written in the stars that he would become a famous scientist in his own right. Although he was diagnosed with a neurological disease at age 21, Stephen did not let the illness define his life. Known for his groundbreaking work in physics, and identified by his wheelchair and computerized voice system, Stephen continued his research until his death in 2018. He is best known for his black hole theories and his best-selling book A Brief History of Time. Stephen Hawking is an example of a person who had a great mind, but an even greater spirit.
About the Author
Jim Gigliotti is a writer based in Southern California. A former editor at the National Football League, he has written more than 50 books for readers of all ages, including biographies for young readers on Olympian Jesse Owens, baseball star Roberto Clemente, and musician Stevie Wonder.
Read an Excerpt
Who Was Stephen Hawking?
When Stephen Hawking was a young boy, he wanted a toy train more than anything else in the world. But he lived in England in the mid-1940s, during World War II. Toy makers weren’t making toys at that time. They were too busy helping the war effort. Their factories were being used to help build planes and bombs for soldiers. Toy trains were hard to come by.
So when Stephen was three years old, his father made him a wooden train. But Stephen didn’t think of it as a real train. He had to push it to make it go. Then Stephen’s father managed to find a windup train. After he turned the key, it moved on its own, but it still wasn’t the kind of train Stephen wanted.
Stephen was hoping for an electric train with real moving parts. He wanted to study how the train worked—what made it go and what made it stop. Finally, when he was old enough, he took out all the money he had in his bank account and bought himself an electric train set. That was more like it!
Stephen soon moved on to bigger things. He started building model airplanes. Then he worked on making toy boats. He didn’t really care how they looked. Instead, he was more interested in how they worked. Sometimes he took things apart. He wasn’t very good at putting them back together, but that didn’t matter. He wanted to study how all the different parts worked with one another.
By the time he was a teenager, Stephen started thinking about how even larger things worked—really big things, like the universe, for instance. How did it start? he wondered. Does it get larger? Does it get smaller? Will it ever end?
Those are big questions! Stephen never stopped asking those big questions. Nothing could stop him. Not even a disease that kept him in a wheelchair for most of his life. Not even losing his ability to speak, and then to move at all.
Instead, he overcame the challenges of his disease and became a physicist. Physics is the study of matter (what all things are made of) and energy. People who study physics take a close look at how matter and energy move through space and time.
Stephen kept thinking about the big questions his entire adult life. He wrote articles and books about black holes, the origin of the universe, and all kinds of things. He was a famous scientist, an important thinker, and an inspiration to people all over the world.
Chapter 1: Beginnings
When World War II began in Europe in 1939, Frank and Isobel Hawking lived in London, England. London was heavily bombed during the war by Germany, which was fighting on the other side. Many parts of the city were destroyed. The Hawkings’ home wasn’t hit, but one bomb landed just a few houses down the street from theirs.
When Isobel was pregnant with Stephen in the early 1940s, she moved for a time to Oxford, England. It was much safer in Oxford, which is about sixty miles away. Oxford is home to the University of Oxford. There were no soldiers or important factories there, so it was not a target for the Germans.
In the safety of Oxford, Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942. It was exactly three hundred years to the day after Italian physicist Galileo died. Stephen, who grew up to become a physicist, liked to joke that there was some significance to that. But he also admitted that thousands of other babies were born on that same day who didn’t grow up to become famous scientists!
Frank Hawking studied medicine in college and became an expert in tropical diseases. He and Isobel lived in the Highgate section of London, where many scientists lived.
Stephen was Frank and Isobel’s first child. In 1943, they had a daughter named Mary.
Another daughter, Philippa, was born in 1946. The family adopted a baby boy named Edward when Stephen was fourteen years old.
In 1950, the family moved about twenty miles north of Highgate to Saint Albans. Frank had started an important job at the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, a town outside London. It was easier for him to commute to work from there.
In Saint Albans, the Hawking family sometimes stood out from their neighbors. Eight-year-old Stephen figured it was because not as many scientists lived in Saint Albans as in Highgate. That was true, but there were probably more things that made the Hawkings stand out.
For instance, they drove around town in an old London taxi from the years before the beginning of World War II. The kids were so embarrassed by the family car that they ducked down in the large spaces in the back seat so their friends wouldn’t see them drive by! Everybody knew whose car it was, though.
The Hawking family also bought an old caravan, or horse-drawn wagon. They parked it in a field in a nearby town and used it as a vacation spot. On summer holidays, the kids slept in the caravan and the grown-ups pitched an army tent right next to it.
Life inside the Hawking house wasn’t typical, either. There were books everywhere. The children even read at dinnertime.
The bookshelves—and there were many—were packed. Even when it looked like they were full, more books were shoved on top or in front of the original rows.
Not surprisingly, Stephen was somewhat quiet. He played a lot on his own. Sometimes, relatives would find him staring at the sky, thinking big thoughts.
But Stephen was not shy about expressing his opinions, and he made many friends. When his friends came over to the Hawking house, the family would put aside their books at dinnertime and talk instead. His young friends were very surprised at the grown-up topics they discussed, like religion or politics. The Hawking house, Stephen said, “was a place where my mind was constantly challenged.”