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How Stephen Hawking Has Defied the Odds For 50 Years 495

Posted by timothy
from the elaborate-put-on dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "Now aged 70, Prof Stephen Hawking, winner of 12 honorary degrees, a CBE and in 2009 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is an extraordinary man — but what is perhaps most extraordinary about Hawking is how he has defied and baffled medical experts who predicted he had just months to live in 1963, when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a disease that only 5% survive for more than a decade after diagnosis. Hawking started having symptoms shortly before his 21st birthday. At first they were mild — a bit of clumsiness and few unexplained stumbles and falls but, predictably, by the very nature of the disease, his incurable condition worsened. The diagnosis came as a great shock, but also helped shape his future." (Read on, below.)
Pickens continues: "'Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed,' says Hawking. 'That engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for.' Another important thing in Hawking's life has been his work and at the age of 70, Hawking continues working at the University of Cambridge and recently published a new book — The Grand Design. 'Being disabled, or physically challenged, makes no difference to how my scientific colleagues treat me apart from practical matters like waiting while I write what I want to say.' Finally the grandfather-of-three continues to seek out new challenges and recently experienced first-hand what space travel feels like by taking a zero-gravity flight in a specially modified plane. 'People are fascinated by the contrast between my very limited physical powers, and the vast nature of the universe I deal with,' says Hawking. 'I'm the archetype of a disabled genius, or should I say a physically challenged genius, to be politically correct. At least I'm obviously physically challenged. Whether I'm a genius is more open to doubt.'"
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How Stephen Hawking Has Defied the Odds For 50 Years

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  • by blahbooboo (839709) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:06AM (#38636468)

    He also has access to an amazing amount of healthcare. Not many people can afford full time staff to maintain their lives both personally and professionally. He has people so desperate to work with him that they train for years to understand his unique communication.

    • by Simon Brooke (45012) <stillyet@googlemail.com> on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:10AM (#38636482) Homepage Journal

      Yes, the National Health Service is wonderful.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by blind biker (1066130)

        Yep, universal healthcare is pretty awesome.

        I wonder how would a young 21 year old academic with ALS fare in the USA.

        • by KeithJM (1024071) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:47AM (#38637178) Homepage
          Actually, he'd probably do fine -- US universities generally have great benefits for their employees (good health insurance policies) and tend to be pretty flexible with sick leave for professors. My dad had a brain tumor and took 2 years of sick leave without any discussion of long-term disability, etc. There was another professor who had long-term kidney failure who basically gave a couple of lectures each semester for a decade and wasn't pressured to do more than that.

          If you have health insurance, the US system is hard to beat.

          The better question would be how would a young blue-collar worker with ALS fare. He would be completely screwed.
          • by MattskEE (925706) on Monday January 09, 2012 @10:39AM (#38637722)

            I wonder how would a young 21 year old academic with ALS fare in the USA.

            US universities generally have great benefits for their employees (good health insurance policies) and tend to be pretty flexible with sick leave for professors

            21 year old academics (even Stephen Hawking) are not professors, they are undergrads or grad students, and they do not get professor-level health insurance plans from the university. I'm a grad student on my university's health insurance policy, it's not bad at least for routine care although the co-pays are higher than when I was on my parent's plan. It costs me a little over $2,200/year, which is admittedly much less than tuition. Sidenote: thanks to "Obamacare" it is much easier for kids to stay on their parents health insurance plan to an older age (26 I think?), which is great if (A) your parent has a job with health insurance and (B) putting you on your parents plan doesn't cost more than you and your parent can afford.

            The better question would be how would a young blue-collar worker with ALS fare. He would be completely screwed.

            Yep :(

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by operagost (62405)
              The problem is that 25 year olds are not "kids", and anyone in their mid-20s (presumably with a Bachelor's degree) should not be riding on the backs of the public.
        • by RingDev (879105)

          21 year olds are still covered by their parent's insurance (Assuming the parents have insurance). 26 is the new cut off age. If you turn 27 and get diagnosed with cancer, you're likely not going to have great options.

          New job means crap benefits, but too much income to qualify for state plans.

          -Rick

        • by sgt scrub (869860) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <muitnias>> on Monday January 09, 2012 @10:45AM (#38637780)

          Long version: $3,000/y medicaid, $6,000/y food stamps, and a free bus ticket. This is assuming he/she doesn't have a job. If they have a job the employers insurance company has to pay up to $3,000/y. They are out of pocket for medical expenses above $3,000/y either way.

          Short version: In a word fuckt.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:12AM (#38636498)

      There's something more here about his disease - I'm sorry the article doesn't really seem to go into it. Why, in particular, has he not had more significant diaphragmatic involvement leading to the respiratory failure that is typically seen at the end of life with ALS? I'm really glad he has an atypical case, but the money aspect pales in comparison to the luck he has with how his disease has progressed.

    • Guy's done what's required to warrant obscene amounts of care being provided to him. He's offered value in return for it in the form of cash and his sick smart brain.

      • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:33AM (#38636632)

        Guy's done what's required to warrant obscene amounts of care being provided to him. He's offered value in return for it in the form of cash and his sick smart brain.

        Yes, that, and being born in the UK where he would receive a similar level of care if he were a penniless dolt.

        In the U.S. cash and societal value might make the difference of live or die, for him.

        In most of the "developing world," he would have to have been born into the richest of families to even hope for basic medical care that would have kept him alive.

        • by jbeaupre (752124) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:35AM (#38637086)

          In the US, being poor and/or elderly makes it easier to get health care. Medicare/Medicaid covers a lot.

          If Hawkings decided to take a job tomorrow in the US at some university, group health care would likely provide similar care to what he has now. Even before the recent laws, group health for large organizations paid for preexisting conditions.

          It's folks that aren't poor but don't get benefits from other sources that are left out in the US. The poor and the elderly already have socialize medicine.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:21AM (#38636544)

      Somebody else mentioned the "privileged care" angle to me earlier this week.

      Though it may be true Hawking has better access to care than others today, when he was diagnosed at 21 I doubt anyone was falling all over themselves to work with yet another young academic struck ill. It is nothing short of astounding that he has survived (without a respirator) in the face of ALS, and equally astounding that his will to continue working in the face of losing all motor control has not been fazed.

      No discredit to his staff a medical team, which I'm sure must be very able. He's beaten the odds against death, lost control of his physical body, and continued to do pioneering science work in the face of it. Those facets of Hawking have less to do with his current level of access to care, and more to do with his DNA and courage.

      Really, amazing dude.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:22AM (#38636556)

      Not many people can afford full time staff to maintain their lives both personally and professionally. He has people so desperate to work with him that they train for years to understand his unique communication.

      That's what grad students are for!

    • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:29AM (#38636610)

      He also has access to an amazing amount of healthcare. Not many people can afford full time staff to maintain their lives both personally and professionally. He has people so desperate to work with him that they train for years to understand his unique communication.

      Money and people who care do help, but a neighbor of mine came down with a related disease 3 years ago, she died 1 year ago, and not for lack of a caring family with the resources to do anything possible.

      When your diaphragm is paralyzed, it's over, or at least very unpleasant to continue. Hawking has been unusually lucky that his disease did not spread to basic autonomic, or extensive cognitive functions, as it all too often does.

    • by ard (115977)

      In Sweden, this is standard health care. Well, maybe not the most expensive equipment, but what is deemed required, along with nursing.

      Severly disabled persons can even be nursed in their homes, 24x7, by their relatives, getting an average salary by the state. This costs the tax payers million SEKs a year, per disabled person (~USD $120k), covering three full time "employees" (3x8 hours=24 hours).

      One of the reasons why we have some of the highest taxes in the world.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:21AM (#38636962)

        And, probably in the grand scheme of things, although a single person like him may be expensive, in total the amount of healthcare tax money being spent towards them is no big deal compared to dealing with, say, the effects of excessive alcohol intake in the general population.

        I'm over here in Finland, somewhat severely disabled (nowhere near like Hawking, though), and can't help but feel that the kinds of systems we have in place also play a crucial part in making sure that people like myself are actually rather independently contributing to society up to their capacity instead of dropping out of the loop totally, becoming fully dependent charity objects... whom could be then blamed even more for the full dependency they have ended up in.

    • by Swampash (1131503) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:36AM (#38637098)

      It's amazing listening to Americans discuss the care of people with medical conditions. They just have... no... idea.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @11:20AM (#38638170)

        blinded. I married a European and as a result have been able to fly over there to get care. My experiences there have been far better, at far lower cost, than any I've ever had in the U.S. The equipment is newer and in better condition. The staff are friendlier, take more time to talk to you, and do better/cleaner jobs with procedures. The overhead of paperwork is far lower. There's a reason I am willing to fly across the Atlantic for medical and dental these days.

        Tell it to an American and they will simply invent untruths to aid in their not believing you. Either you're lying or you have some kind of undue influence or they're treating you better because they know you're an American and they want to impress you so that you'll help them to immigrate into the U.S. (yes, I've been told that), or umpteen other nonsensical things. The only thing that they won't believe is the Occam's Razor case. The care is simply better because the system simply works better.

        No, that couldn't possibly be it. Everyone knows that that eurosocialistcommunisttotalitarianantiamerican system is completely dysfunctional because biggovernmentneverworksandsocializedmedicineistheultimategovernmentboondogle.

        Americans are just that way. There's a reason we're increasingly the laughing stock not just of Europe (where we've always been seen as quaint and ridiculous) but now even in places like the Pacific Rim and parts of Latin America that we still believe engage in a kind of colonial worship of us.

  • Happy Birthday,Professor Hawking.Your efforts have made physics and science cool.

  • by jo_ham (604554) <joham999@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:10AM (#38636480)

    Remember when he was held up as a textbook example of the types of people who would "not survive" under a universal healthcare system?

    Until, of course, he pointed out that not only was he born in Britain under such a system, but that he owes his life to it many times over.

    The retractions on those stories (those who even bothered to correct them) were amusing.

    I still think his most significant contribution to mankind is teaming up with Pink Floyd ;) What's a PhD when you can be a rock star? (Brian Cox and Brian May, quiet you!)

    • by Nimey (114278) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:31AM (#38637064) Homepage Journal

      I suspect you'd find that most of these idiots repeating the "death panel" meme are those who themselves would have let Hawking die as a young academic, to save money.

    • by rAiNsT0rm (877553)

      I love how people will still argue this point. America deserves to suffer unnecessarily because they are so afraid of someone else getting something "for free" that they are completely blind to the fact that they also could and should be receiving the same for how much they currently pay (actually less when taxes and average healthcare costs are factored in). Universal healthcare in the US will never happen and if it does it will be ruined by lobbyists and big pharmacy/healthcare which will ensure it is a f

  • Remarkable (Score:5, Informative)

    by overshoot (39700) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:14AM (#38636504)
    How many physicists have written best-sellers? About physics?

    To join in wishing him the best: may he live as long as life brings him joy, and joy for as long as he lives.

    • Re:Remarkable (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:39AM (#38636660)

      How many physicists have written best-sellers? About physics?

      Feynman, Gamow, Heisenberg all instantly come to mind as GOOD best seller physics popular science writers. There are probably a lot more BAD ones, example the new age quantum mech guy Zukav, but I can only instantly think of four good ones. You can troll by arguing about Greene, him being a string theorist means hes not a real physicist rather a theoretical mathematician, but he does live in the physics community despite mostly doing theoretical math, so I guess he counts. Lets call it five good ones.

      The puzzle is how come there are so many Physicist / Popular science book authors? In comparison, the biochemists have Asimov, and ... um yeah they've got Asimov, truly a great, yet only one individual. How about biologists? Other than the "poke a stick at the creationist nutters" of which there must be hundreds all writing the same thing, all they've got is Rachel Carson... So I ask again, how come there's so many best selling physicist authors?

  • The man has focus (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Demonoid-Penguin (1669014) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:18AM (#38636530) Homepage

    Given a reason to live he sure hasn't wasted the opportunity. I'm betting he's never even read slashdot, let alone posted here.

    Where as I... oh crap!

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:19AM (#38636534)

    I wonder if he was misdiagnosed and has something else? That would be embarrassing.

    Another option is the disease might kill old people regardless of how young its diagnosed. I read up on this and the untold medical surprise is he was diagnosed at 21... most people get this diagnosis around 60 and die within a decade, in other words, around 70. Of course most people die around 70 anyway, plus or minus 20 years or so. Its quite possible if he dies around his current 70ish (Although I wish him well and I hope he lives to be a happy centurion, in the good morning america tradition, not the ancient roman tradition) the disease would none the less be consistent in killing people around age 70.

    For a similar yet completely unrelated example, genealogical research shows my ancestors uniformly seem to croak in the 80s from cardiovascular disease if nothing else gets them first (like warfare, farm accidents, etc), it just seems to be the scotsman/german way to go, I suppose you could diagnose me with that disease at age 5 if you want, and wait until I croak at 85 like most of my ancestors, but that wouldn't be a medical miracle, more of a very likely prediction.

    • ALS is well understood to be a "highly variable" disease. Meaning, they know that they don't know what it's going to do - sucks when a loved one gets it because there's always that "glimmer of hope" that it will stop before it kills them, but in 99% of cases, that's not true at the 5 year mark.

  • Creationists (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SJHillman (1966756) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:24AM (#38636578)

    The funny thing is that I've heard a lot of creationists saying his condition is a result of defying God (by being a scientist apparently). If I were a creationist, then the fact that he's defied his condition for half a century would tell me that either 1) Hawkings is stronger than God or 2) someone up there is looking out for.

    But I'm not a creationist, so I'll chalk it up to his willingness to fight and his access to good healthcare. And maybe random dumb luck.

    • Re:Creationists (Score:4, Interesting)

      by JoeMerchant (803320) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:42AM (#38636684)

      But I'm not a creationist, so I'll chalk it up to his willingness to fight and his access to good healthcare. And maybe random dumb luck.

      I've worked in and around medical devices and healthcare for 2 decades, and in that time I've seen a whole lot of "use it or lose it" principle in halting disease progression. It is certainly no guarantee, but odds are better that you will be able to keep doing something if you keep doing it. Basically, "bed rest" is evil and should be avoided at every opportunity.

      A whole lot of "good healthcare" is social support, keeping the patient active - sort of the opposite of your typical ICU experience.

    • Re:Creationists (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mrsurb (1484303) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:43AM (#38636696)

      I'm a Christian but not a creationist. I have a degree in physics and a degree in theology. And I thank God for Stephen Hawking and the insight that his incredible mind has given us into the universe, despite his defiance of God. I read his book "A Brief History of Time" and it blew my mind, it was one of the factors that led me to study physics. I used his latest book, "The Grand Design" in my honours thesis for my theology degree which was an investigation into the appearance of fine-tuning in the universe.

      Not looking for an argument, just want to point out that not all Christians have the anti-science attitudes that seem so prevalent in American evangelicanlism.

    • Re:Creationists (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Kjella (173770) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:12AM (#38636882) Homepage

      The funny thing is that I've heard a lot of creationists saying his condition is a result of defying God (by being a scientist apparently). If I were a creationist, then the fact that he's defied his condition for half a century would tell me that either 1) Hawkings is stronger than God or 2) someone up there is looking out for.

      Whenever evil flourishes, the innocent and the righteous are slaughtered or struck by injury or disease the fanatics always rewrite reality until it fits their religion. The innocent weren't truly innocent, the righteous weren't truly righteous, evil exists as a punishment for our sins and so on. God is perfect and infallible so if you punched them in the face and said "If God didn't want you to get punched in the face, why didn't he stop me?" they'd secretly accept that as some sort of punishment or trial by God for their pride or to test their faith. If I'd given them a gracious donation to their church, they'd see it as a blessing from God.

      There's always some explanation that fits reality, and when it really doesn't you just say he works in "mysterious ways" that us humans can't comprehend. If he'd died, that is God. If he continues to live with the disease, that's also God prolonging it. If he'd been miraculously cured, that would be by the grace of God. It's like a game show with God behind every door, no matter which you pick. Religion is the anthropomorphization of reality, that behind everything there's an invisible man pulling invisible strings. And no matter what you say you can't prove the strings don't exist.

  • Lame (Score:5, Funny)

    by BlackPignouf (1017012) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:29AM (#38636608)

    No Nobel prize. Less range than a Prius. Lame.

    • Re:Lame (Score:4, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:43AM (#38636694)

      BlackPignouf said:

      No Nobel prize. Less range than a Prius. Lame.

      He still hasn't solved the most troubling mystery of Man. From Stephen Hawking himself:

      In an interview with the New Scientist ahead of his 70th birthday, he said he spent most of the day thinking about women, who he says are "a complete mystery"

      References:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16137007 [bbc.co.uk]

    • Re:Lame (Score:5, Informative)

      by necro81 (917438) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:02AM (#38636826) Journal

      No Nobel prize

      Which at this point is surprising to me. He did pioneering work on the physics of black holes, and was the first to theorize on what is now called Hawking Radiation. That seems like a pretty good accomplishment. Do you suppose the relative lack of experimental confirmation keeps him from it?

      On the other hand, the Nobel committee has been known to overlook some rather obvious candidates. Einstein never received a Nobel for his work on relativity (special or general) or his contributions to quantum mechanics. His prize was given for his explanation of the photoelectric effect [wikipedia.org] which, while an important contribution, most people don't know about.

  • by lkcl (517947) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:30AM (#38636616) Homepage

    i think it would be an interesting study, even an informal one, to see how many other people have a physical condition that is listed as "unsurvivable within period X" and to see if there is a correlation between them "defying the predictions" and, as hawking himself puts it, having "something to live for".

    put another way: how many people have, on learning of their condition, literally lost the will to live, and how many took it as a challenge to fight for their right to life and a purpose?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:48AM (#38636730)

    Stephen Hawking has achieved quantum immortality.

Eureka! -- Archimedes

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