Physicist Stephen Hawking recently published My Brief History , his first book written unaided since A Brief History of Time became an instant classic in 1988. Though the wheelchair-bound 71-year-old has made major contributions to the specialized and mind-bending fields of quantum physics and string theory, he is best known for his popular work explaining cosmology to the public and for serving as a symbol in the collective imagination — from the Simpsons to Star Trek — for the power of the mind to transcend bodily limitations.
“My goal is simple,” he has claimed. “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” But his latest book doesn’t probe into the dawn of our universe, but into Hawking’s own personal world and his journey from a humble birth through physical disability to the limits of the intellect. And Hawking’s own universe, like the cosmos itself, is bound by some key numbers. Consider:
1 Word Per Minute
The rate at which Hawking currently communicates by moving his cheek muscles to express one letter at a time.
The number of hours that Hawking estimates he spent studying in three years at the University of Oxford, where he found the course work “ridiculously easy.”
The age at which Hawking begin to experience the symptoms of ALS.
The number of wives Hawking has had.
The year Hawking completed A Brief History of Time , his first work for the general public, which he wrote to help pay for his three children’s education expenses.
The year that Hawking left his first wife, Jane, for one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he later married and divorced.
The record number of weeks A Brief History of Time stayed on the Sunday Times’ bestseller list.
The number of books Hawking has sold (“I have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex,” he bragged).
How long Hawking escaped gravity and the confines of his wheelchair in 2007 when he became the first person with a disability to fly on one of the zero gravity flights offered by Zero Gravity Corp., a space tourism company.
The year that Hawking pronounced (a) that “philosophy is dead” at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference and (b) that heaven is a “fairy story” for people afraid of death.
Why you should care
Stephen Hawking’s life’s work revolves around numbers, but numbers can tell us some interesting things about his life as well.