In the news: Stephen Hawking

April 16, 2004

Stephen Hawking's private life was once again thrust into the public limelight this week, with a BBC2 dramatisation of the physicist's early days as a PhD student at Cambridge University during the 1960s.

The drama covers the defining months of Hawking's life, when doctors diagnosed motor neurone disease and gave the then 21-year-old just two years to live. Despite the debilitating disease, Hawking produced a PhD thesis showing that according to Einstein's theory of general relativity, the universe must have begun as a singularity - a point in space where gravity is so strong that "everything vanishes into nothing". The proof was a key step in confirming the Big Bang theory, the now widely accepted hypothesis that everything was created from a cosmic explosion 15 billion years ago. (Between equations on the origins of the universe, he also found time to fall in love with Jane Wilde, who became his first wife.) Hawking's cosmic ideas attracted little attention outside the world of theoretical physics at the time but they secured him a Cambridge fellowship that launched his academic career. In the 1980s he was heralded as the most famous physicist since Einstein after publishing A Brief History of Time , dubbed the most-bought but least-understood book of all time.

Forty years on from his MND diagnosis, the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge continues to attract media attention - but for his private life rather than his science. Detectives investigating allegations that he had suffered a series of assaults last month have closed the inquiry after finding no evidence to substantiate the claims. Hawking himself has denied that any assaults took place.

The 62-year-old also dismisses claims that he is the world's smartest person. "It's very embarrassing. It's rubbish, just media hype," he has said. "They just want a hero, and I fill the role model of a disabled genius. I'm disabled - but I am no genius."

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