Stephen Hawking is arguably the most famous scientist in the world. His groundbreaking work in theoretical physics would, on its own, earn the man worldwide distinction. But Hawking has also become an inspirational figure by overcoming the degenerative nerve condition known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
In today's DNews report, Trace Dominguez looks at Hawking's life and work -- and the remarkable fact that he's survived ALS to the age of 74.
First, a quick primer on Hawking's scientific bonafides. In 1970, Hawking and colleague Roger Penrose published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A proposing a new theorem for describing the Big Bang and how the universe began as a singularity... and will likely end as one. That was just the beginning, as it were. Within a few years, Hawking and collaborating researchers had come up with a way to stitch together the two major branches of modern physics -- general relativity and quantum theory.
Meanwhile, Hawking was suffering from the increasingly debilitating effects of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The word amyotrophic literally means "no muscle nourishment," but the disease actually attacks motor neurons that tell the body's muscles to flex. Gradually, the brain loses control of its ability to command muscles.
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Once the body's muscles stop getting commands, they begin to atrophy and shrink. The ALS Association says half of people diagnosed with the disease live three or more years, and only ten percent live more than 10 years. Hawking has beat the odds by living with the condition for more than 50 years.
In 2002, a neurologist told the British Medical Journal: "I am not aware of anyone else who has survived with [ALS] as long ... the disease seems to have almost burnt out. This kind of stabilization is extremely rare."
No one really knows how or why Hawking has managed to live so long with ALS. When asked by the New York Times to give advice to others who may suffer from a disability, Hawking was his usual inspirational self: "Concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with," he said. "Don't be disabled in spirit, as well as physically."
-- Glenn McDonald
ALS Association: What Is ALS?
BBC: These Are The Discoveries That Made Stephen Hawking Famous
Scientific American: How Has Stephen Hawking Lived Past 70 With ALS?