Stephen Hawking Experiments with ESP… and Liquor
The best scientists often start out as poor students. It was true of Albert Einstein and it was true of Stephen Hawking.
Hawking was born in the small British city of St. Albans, 300 years to the day after Galileo died. During his early years in school, Hawking was “regarded by his teachers as a bright student, but only a little above average,” according the biography, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. There is even an anecdote about two of Hawking’s friends betting one another that he would not amount to anything in life. Perhaps even more damagingly, on multiple occasions, Hawking’s father demonstrated that he doubted his son’s ability as a student.
Yet, Hawking was always a natural at math and science. In fact, that was the problem in a nutshell. He could get by doing very little work and felt no compulsion to overexert himself. In his free time, he and a small group of friends discussed serious matters like the meaning of life and God. One of the group’s earliest experiments was a ridiculous effort to influence the movement of a die… with the power of their minds.
At the time, extrasensory perception (better known as ESP) was a popular fascination, so Hawking and his friends tried to determine if it was real. According to the biography, “Stephen was far more interested in this – it was quantifiable, real experimental work, and there was a chance that the idea could be proved or disproved. It was not simply a matter of faith and hope.” He quickly soured on ESP after realizing it was fake. A few years later, Hawking and his friends undertook a more serious task, and built a very rudimentary computer that could do math problems.
Through all of this, it was clear that Hawking’s main interests were math and physics. But his father was an overeager medical researcher who wanted Stephen to follow in his footsteps and study medicine. Eventually Stephen won out and enrolled in Oxford to pursue those subjects. But even at Oxford, Hawking proved to be a lazy student who spent no more than an hour a day studying and procrastinated doing assignments until the last minute. “Work was a bore. [Hawking] had very little difficulty…and he went into a downward spiral of bothering very little and finding meager satisfaction in easy victories,” according to the biography. This boredom eventually gave way to mild depression, which he dealt with by rowing and partying.
Things continued this way as he moved into a PhD program at Cambridge. Hawking might very well have remained a brilliant mind with only mediocre accomplishments in life if not for being diagnosed with the debilitating and very deadly motor neuron disease known as ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.) He was just 21 years old when he found out he supposedly had only two years to live. As the story goes, Hawking “fell into a deep depression,” often secluding himself in his room, drinking and blasting classical music by Wagner.
However, out of his incredible personal tragedy, Hawking found a sense of purpose. He later recounted having several dreams about his imminent death that impacted him greatly and led him to the belief that he might as well do some good with the time he had left. It wasn’t long before he made his first big scientific splash. Hawking publicly challenged Fred Hoyle’s assertion of how the universe was formed. Hoyle was the eminent physicist at Cambridge at the time (and the man who coined the phrase Big Bang.) Hawking’s objection was based on a mistake he discovered in Hoyle’s math and sure enough Hawking turned out to be correct.
Finally, in his third year at Cambridge, Hawking attended a guest lecture on black holes, which motivated him to rethink his understanding of the universe and inspired much of his life’s work thereafter. As he later recalled, “I… started working hard for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I found I liked it. Maybe it is not really fair to call it work. Someone once said, ‘Scientists and prostitutes get paid for doing what they enjoy.'”