New Year’s post: Stephen Hawking shows us how to overcome insurmountable barriers


I’ve just read Stephen Hawking’s autobiography ‘ My Brief History’ which I was given as a Christmas present by my mother.

Stephen Hawking Credit: NASA

Stephen Hawking weightless (NASA)

It’s a recommended read if only because, like his famous book ‘A Brief History of Time’, it’s also brief and very popular – in truth it’s amusing, handles some complex science as simply as possible and provides a new insight into a remarkable person – here’s a proper review. The process of writing his autobiography would have been lengthy given the extent of Hawking’s illness, which has left him severely physically disabled. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I had the privilege of seeing Professor Hawking a number of times up close while working at the Royal Society, where he is a Fellow. The last time was when he unveiled a specially commissioned portrait and I heard him give a speech  – or at least his voice synthesiser, which has become more famous than the great man.

My business behr outcomes works with a selection of universities and learned societies as part of the STEM Disability Transition Group. Last year we organised our inaugural conference at the Institute of Physics in London. In July 2014 we are planning our second one at the University of Greenwich. What do we do? We promote and support evidence-informed measures that help disabled students progress into and from their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses at school, college and university to relevant employment. In Stephen Hawking’s autobiography you can read about his school and undergraduate experiences, before he was diagnosed with an incurable illness (motor neurone disease or ALS). This happened at age 21 while he was completing his PhD at Cambridge. By then it was becoming clear that he had a special mind and would be an incredible new talent in the world of theoretical physics.

What is even more amazing is the fact that Stephen Hawking has managed to live and actively contribute to his area of work beyond the age of 70, admittedly with some close shaves along the way and the help of the latest medical advances. He speaks about his situation in the following way: “My disability has not been a serious handicap in my scientific work. In fact, in some ways I guess it has been an asset … I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do.”

Whether you agree or not with his words, you have to admit that the world will be a lesser place when Stephen Hawking eventually departs – as was evidenced lately with the sad demise of another giant amongst men (and women), Nelson Mandela.

We can but strive to learn from such extraordinary people about the need to set our aspirations high and refuse to abandon our hopes, whatever the barriers presented.

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