Stephen Hawking, an internationally recognized physicist and mathematics professor at Cambridge University in London, and an ALS patient for 40 years, was one of 16 recipients awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama last night. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honor, originally established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II.
“Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way,” Obama said of the honorees. “Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive.”
67-year-old Hawking is a familiar figure in the ALS world, and best known in physics for his work on black holes. Scientifically, his name is connected with proofs that the universe must contain “singularities” and with radiation theoretically emitted by black holes (“Hawking radiation”).
Hawking, by any estimation, is no ordinary scientist. His wheelchair-bound figure has become emblematic of the human spirit pressing on against adversity, and has indirectly generated awareness of ALS and its repercussions for many years. Diagnosed at age 21, Hawking has been almost completely paralyzed for decades. He communicates through an electronic voice synthesizer and his computer.
Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time remained on the bestseller list for a record 237 weeks. As he conferred the honor Barack Obama said: “From his wheelchair, [Hawking] has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit.”
On his homepage, when asked about the study of physics taking him “beyond physical limitations,” Hawking answered, “The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance.”
An unobtrusive symbol of human perseverance generally, Hawking’s accomplishments clearly demonstrate that ALS patients do not merely survive: they continue to live. Congratulations, Dr. Hawking!
by Meghan Kallman