Stephen Hawking

updated 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Job himself may not have been more grievously afflicted. What's left of Stephen Hawking, the physical man, is a big head ripped by a drooling grin and a body collapsed into a pile of wasted limbs. Ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Hawking is unable to speak or to move anything except his eyes and three fingers of his right hand. But, oh, how the man can think.

Not since Albert Einstein has a cosmologist pilfered so many secrets from space and time. Hawking's mind, like a Magellan of the infinite, cruises among black holes, white holes, time reversals and universes that dance on the head of a pin. He has been called "our planet's most fully developed cerebral creature," and no one accused him of hubris when he declared, "My goal is a complete understanding of the universe."

In 1988 Hawking realized a more modest ambition: He became a best-selling author. In A Brief History of Time he surveyed the state of the cosmos with elegant lucidity and offered his readers fascinating bulletins from beyond. According to Hawking, the universe didn't begin with a Big Bang—didn't begin at all, in fact, and won't ever end. It just is.

A mathematics professor at Cambridge University, Hawking, 46, scoots around in a motorized wheelchair and communicates through a word processor hooked up to a voice synthesizer. Married in 1965 to linguist Jane Wilde, he has fathered three children (aged 9, 18 and 21) and fairly bubbles with zest. "When one's expectations are reduced to zero," he once explained, "one really appreciates everything one does have." What Hawking does have is a rare and wonderful consolation: From his wheelchair, on a clear day he can see Forever.

From Our Partners