‘If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.’ This was Stephen Hawking’s declaration at the end of his viva in Oxford: he had gained a borderline mark in his Finals examinations, hovering on the boundary between a First and an upper Second, and thus was called upon for an oral examination. Knowing that his work ethic may not be held in high regard –the reason being that he found the studies given to him at Oxford simply too easy— he suggested that a higher mark would see him leave the university entirely, and then left that knowledge at the disposal of the examiners.
Accordingly, Hawking ended up after an undergraduate degree at University College Oxford in a postgraduate position at Cambridge, the university with which he is, at least in popular knowledge, most connected. Since then, it need hardly be said, he has carved out a name for himself as one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries— and, in addition, as somebody who has battled to overcome a wholly debilitating illness.
Stephen Hawking’s research has been wide-ranging and incredibly deep; his mathematical ability has taken on an almost mystical reputation. Throughout his career, Hawking has won numerous prizes, and has cast light on subjects unfathomable to the layman, but by no means anything but exceptionally interesting. He has delved into the event horizon of the black hole, investigating the role of information as a concept in physics and the implications brought to bear on it by somewhere that catches and crushes everything; he has sought to apply the theories of quantum mechanics across the universe and knowledge of physics; he has, like a genius in a science fiction novel, given lectures and conducted thought experiments on the possibilities of time travel.
All of this, he has done with a progressively worsening condition of ALS, which over the decades has gradually paralysed him: he has become one of the greatest thinkers of the past centuries despite at one point being given a life expectancy of just twenty-two years. We hope that the students in Clare College, less than five minutes’ walk from Hawking’s own Gonville and Caius College, will be inspired by him to better themselves and advance their own knowledge.