Stephen Hawking to turn 70, defying disease

Jan 05, 2012 By MARIA CHENG , AP Medical Writer
In this June 19, 2006 file photo Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking speaks at an international gathering of scientists on the origins of the universe at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in China. British scientist Stephen Hawking has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe but he has left one mystery for others to explain: How he managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease. The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or motor neuron disease, when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Most people die within a few years of the disease being identified. On Sunday, Hawking will turn 70.(AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel-File)

British scientist Stephen Hawking has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe but he has left one mystery unsolved: How he has managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease.

The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Most people die within a few years of the diagnosis, called motor neurone disease in the U.K. On Sunday, Hawking will turn 70.

"I don't know of anyone who's survived this long," said Ammar Al-Chalabi, director of the Motor Neurone Disease Care and Research Centre at King's College London. He does not treat Hawking and described his longevity as "extraordinary."

"It is unusual for () patients to survive for decades, but not unheard of," said Dr. Rup Tandan, a neurology professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Still, Tandan said many longtime survivors had ventilators to breathe for them - which Hawking does not.

Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book "A ," a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. His subsequent theories have revolutionized modern understanding of concepts like and the of how the universe began.

To mark his birthday Sunday, Cambridge University is holding a public symposium on "The State of the Universe," featuring talks from 27 leading scientists, including Hawking himself. For 30 years, he held a mathematics post at the university previously held by . Hawking retired from that position in 2009 and is now director of research at the university's Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralyzed and in a wheelchair since 1970. He now communicates only by twitching his right cheek. Since catching pneumonia in 1985, Hawking has needed around-the-clock care and relies on a computer and voice synthesizer to speak.

A tiny infrared sensor sits on his glasses, hooked up to a computer. The sensor detects Hawking's cheek pulses, which select words displayed on a computer screen. The chosen words are then spoken by the voice synthesizer. It can take up to 10 minutes for Hawking to formulate a single sentence.

"The only trouble is (the voice synthesizer) gives me an American accent," the Briton wrote on his website.

It took Hawking four years to write his last book, "The Grand Design," missing his publisher's original deadline.

Hawking declined requests from The Associated Press for an interview, but his personal assistant, Judith Croasdell, spoke to the AP. She described her boss as remarkably patient.

"The way he communicates can seem frustratingly slow to most people but he doesn't let that impede his thinking," she said.

After a brief hospital stay, Hawking told her that he spent the time thinking about black holes.

Hawking typically comes into the office after a big breakfast and reading the news, Croasdell said. "He's not an early morning person, but he does stay quite late," until about 7 or 8 in the evening, she said.

Hawking's rooftop university office is crammed full of memorabilia: family photos, a miniature NASA shuttle, and a signed picture of himself with President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. On top of physics books sits a disability access guide for the university.

Hawking's fame has led to guest appearances on some of his favorite television shows including "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek." His animated likeness from "The Simpsons" has even been turned into an action figure - one of which sits proudly on his office desk. There's also a Homer Simpson clock that Hawking is known to glare at when visitors are late for an appointment.

"He's a big ham, he loves the spotlight," said Kitty Ferguson, who's written two biographies of the physicist.

She said he has a wry sense of humor and has programmed his computer to respond to random encounters with people who ask if he's . "No, but I'm often mistaken for that man," his voice synthesizer deadpans.

Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, attacks motor neurons, cells that control the muscles. Patients typically suffer muscle weakness and wasting, become paralyzed and have problems talking, swallowing and breathing. Only about 10 percent of patients live longer than a decade.

People who are stricken at a young age, as Hawking was, generally have a better chance of surviving longer. Most people are diagnosed between 50 and 70. Life expectancy generally ranges from two to five years after symptoms like slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness set in. Hawking's personal physicians don't discuss his condition with the press, Croasdell said.

For some reason, the disease has progressed more slowly in Hawking than in most. Al-Chalabi and colleagues are analyzing a DNA sample from Hawking, along with those of other patients, to see if there is something rare about his disease or any genetic mutations that could explain his long survival and if that information could be used to help others.

Some experts said the type of care Hawking has, including about a dozen health workers 24 hours a day, may have extended his life expectancy.

"The disease can sometimes stabilize and then the kind of care delivered may be a factor in survival," said Virginia Lee, a brain disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "Remaining mentally alert is also extremely important and he has clearly done that."

Hawking says he tries not to think about his limitations.

"I have had (Lou Gehrig's disease) for practically all my adult life," he says on his website. "Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work," he writes. "I try to lead as normal a life as possible and not think about my condition or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many."

From the office pictures documenting his achievements, that certainly seems to be the case. Framed photos show the physicist with several popes and on memorable trips to China and Easter Island.

He has even flown in a space simulator. In 2007, Hawking took a zero-gravity flight in Florida, the first time in 40 years he abandoned his wheelchair.

"That was the happiest I've ever seen Stephen," said Sam Blackburn, Hawking's graduate assistant, who accompanied him on the ride along with about a half-dozen others, including two doctors. "He just had the biggest grin on his face."

Hawking has also been married twice and has three children and three grandchildren. With his daughter Lucy, he has written several children's books on physics.

Al-Chalabi said most patients with Lou Gehrig's disease succumb after their breathing muscles stop working. He had no predictions for what the biggest health risks to Hawking's future might be.

"He is truly remarkable," Al-Chalabi said. "This is someone who's managed to find ways around every single problem the disease has thrown at him."

Explore further: Optimum inertial self-propulsion design for snowman-like nanorobot

More information: Hawking website: http://www.hawking.org.uk

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Xbw
4.1 / 5 (28) Jan 05, 2012
Happy Birthday Stephen. You are an inspiration to every scientist but even more, to every human stricken with a disability. Here's to many more years.
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (50) Jan 05, 2012
Why can't they paint a third eye on his forehead and get him into a couple of episodes of Dr. Who as Davros?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (14) Jan 05, 2012
Hawking said: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist."

He added: "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."

What point is otto trying to make you should ask? Why would god create a universe in which he is superfluous? He would not.

Ergo, there is no god. There is only Stephen.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (13) Jan 05, 2012
Perhaps... the pope will declare stephens victory over his disease a bonafide miracle, and beatify his nurse.
http://deziddon.com/stephen hawking nurse

-She should take at least some of the credit I think.

Link is screwed up - just GOOGLE it.
Pressure2
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2012
Stephen Hawkins is amazing, truly one of a kind. He must hold the record for longevity with the disease he has been handicapped with. Happy Birthday and many more Stephen!

And yes his nurses surely deserve a lot of the credit.
jsdarkdestruction
4.1 / 5 (9) Jan 05, 2012
Awesome. Professor hawking is a hero of mine. To have the things that have happened to him happen and him to overcome it all and survive this long is also amazing. I often think of how he said he felt after he found out his disease and how he escaped the "black hole of despair" and how much strength that must of taken to do that. i dont know if i could. Happy birthday Mr. Hawking. I hope you have many more with us.
villarose
5 / 5 (8) Jan 06, 2012
Mind over body!!!
His time will come but for now..HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!
freethinking
1.3 / 5 (15) Jan 06, 2012
In todays world, if a mother was informed that her baby would be born with Lou Gehrig's disease, suffer muscle weakness and wasting, become paralyzed and have problems talking, swallowing and breathing, need about a dozen health workers 24 hours a day. How many would advise that the mother kill this unborn child?
What quality of life could this unborn child have?
What could this unborn child do to pay for the millions of dollars spent keeping him alive?

How many of you on this board, would kill your unborn child if you knew they would have Lou Gehrig's disease?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.1 / 5 (11) Jan 06, 2012
Arent you being a little melodramatic FT?

"In about 10% of cases, ALS is caused by a genetic defect. In the remaining cases, the cause is unknown.

In ALS, nerve cells (neurons) waste away or die, and can no longer send messages to muscles. This eventually leads to muscle weakening, twitching, and an inability to move the arms, legs, and body. The condition slowly gets worse. When the muscles in the chest area stop working, it becomes hard or impossible to breathe on one's own.

ALS affects approximately 5 out of every 100,000 people worldwide.

There are no known risk factors, except for having a family member who has a hereditary form of the disease.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually do not develop until after age 50, but they can start in younger people..."
http://www.ornl.g...st.shtml

-Luckily we can perhaps test for these genetic defects and soon we will be able to fix them.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (13) Jan 06, 2012
But really, the only reason why we need abortion is because you religionists are so adamant about reproducing beyond your means in the desperate attempt to fill up the earth with fellow practitioners. God requires this does he not?

Without religions abortions would become very rare. The 'murder' of unborn 'people' lies solely upon your heads.

Do you feel bad about this? Why no - you blame the next religion dont you?

The ONLY other alternative is war as it always has been. You would rather these unborn 'people' reach adolescence so they can die on the battlefield like good xian soldiers.

Learn from history. God loves war. Give up your fairy tales.
freethinking
1.6 / 5 (13) Jan 06, 2012
Otto, selfishness is the reason for most abortions.

Since progressives and yourself are renowned for and promote selfishness, do you feel guilting for all the innocent babies that have died?

TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (8) Jan 06, 2012
Otto, selfishness is the reason for most abortions.

Since progressives and yourself are renowned for and promote selfishness, do you feel guilting for all the innocent babies that have died?
You are massively deluded. The primary reason for the ONE BILLION abortions which have occurred in the last century, is the necessity of reducing population growth. This is why it is promoted. This is why the cultures which would have resisted it were destroyed in the world wars and the communist martial law which followed.

The SCALE of the problem of overpopulation, is reflected in the SCALE of the measures taken to reduce it.

Only religionists would want to bear children knowing they will not be able to feed them. Because their books tell them that god will provide, right? Only he NEVER does. He only says its ok to take from unbelievers when believers can no longer provide for themselves.

So we can see by this that it is actually religionists who are the selfish ones. Correct?
that_guy
5 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2012
Mind over body!!!
His time will come but for now..HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!

Exactly. I think research will show that Hawking's body died 42 years ago, but that his mind has been forcing the remnant organs to function through alternate means.

When he twitches his cheek, it's because part of his brain grew in there to replace the muscle and now he can literally twitch his cheek through thinking alone.

His brain can even repel an attack from chuck norris.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.5 / 5 (39) Jan 06, 2012
The mighty Stephen Hawking
He got his PHD in pain and a masters in disaster.

http://www.youtub...gw-_Ym6s

http://www.youtub...RYNdVT7g
PhotonX
5 / 5 (2) Jan 08, 2012
In todays world...blah, blah, blah...How many would advise that the mother kill this unborn child? ...blah, blah, blah...How many of you on this board, would kill your unborn child if you knew they would have Lou Gehrig's disease?


Damn it. Any excuse, any excuse at all, to hang your damned anti-abortion shingle out. Why can't you just wish the man well and be done with it?

How many ALS sufferers become world-class astrophysicits/cosmologists before they are struck down? How many would receive the virtually unlimited medical and social support Dr. Hawking has? Would *you* devote your entire life 24/7/365 to care for him?

Which is all off topic, sorry about that. Happy belated Birthday, Dr. Hawking! If God were real I would ask him to bless you.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.4 / 5 (37) Jan 08, 2012
FreeThinkingTard seems to think that Hawking's talents are innate rather than due to his socialization, training, and assistance and hence abortion would have deprived a world of him.

But then an abortion may have opened up a position for him in a school or allowed a mentor with a free slot to provide the direction and assistance for him to become the man he is.

Since nature is responsible for conducting nearly 100% of all abortions, and since socialization is more important than innate ability, the FreeThinkingTard doesn't seem to have much of a foundation to build his argument on.

btb101
5 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2012
while i disagree with some of his theories i sincerely wish Mr. S. Hawkins all the best for his birthday, and hope he has many more to come.

an inspiration to everyone.