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When I was twenty-one and contracted motor neurone disease, I felt it was very unfair. Why should this happen to me? At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life.

Stephen Hawking, My Brief History (2013)

In the early 1960s, aged just 21, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given a projected two years to live. In fact, he lived for more than five decades, and became one of the world’s most recognised and revered scientists. Through his groundbreaking work as a mathematician, physicist, and cosmologist, Hawking hoped not only to further human understanding but – in his own words – to make others feel ‘that they need not be cut off from the great intellectual and philosophical questions’. These great questions animated Hawking’s life, and enabled him to conclude: ‘It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe’.

Based on the scientific explanations for life and the universe – to which he had contributed so much – Hawking concluded that he saw no evidence for the existence of a god. This did not, however, lessen the meaning or the marvel of being alive. Hawking’s own richly lived life, and the power of science harnessed to enrich it, are perhaps nowhere more evident than in his wheelchair and communication system, through which – and with the support of a devoted team of people – Hawking was able to live, work, and convey his insights decades longer than his original prognosis imagined. A wheelchair user from the late 1960s, a tracheotomy in 1986 left Hawking unable to speak. From this point, he used a voice synthesiser to communicate with his friends, family, and carers, and with the world at large. This wheelchair, a Permobil F3, testifies to the capacity of science and technology – driven by human ingenuity – to improve human life, adapt to changing needs, and further our understanding. It is also a reminder of the importance and potential of human communication and cooperation, and of the remarkable legacy of one of the world’s best loved scientists. This emphasis on science and human potential sits at the heart of the humanist philosophy; a way of thinking expounded by Hawking himself, who wrote:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either… I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (2018)

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Image: Wheelchair with Communication System. Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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