Personalities A quiz on the life of Stephen Hawking – how much do you know about the famous physicist?
One popular-science book that caused a splash this year was Hawking Hawking: the Selling of a Scientific Celebrity by Charles Seife. As well as exploring the reasons behind Stephen Hawking’s meteoric rise to fame, the biography offers a glimpse into his personality. Here, Laura Hiscott brings you a quiz about the human side of this cultural icon and national treasure
Q: Stephen Hawking was born on the anniversary of the death of a very famous scientist. Which scientist was it?
- Galileo Galilei
- Johannes Kepler
- Michael Faraday
- James Clerk Maxwell
Q: At what age did Hawking learn to read?
- 2 years
- 3 years
- 5 years
- 8 years
Q: When Hawking was an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, which sports club was he a member of?
- Rugby club
- Boat club
- Fencing club
- Running club
Q: When he was an undergraduate, he was caught by the police and told off for something. Nothing more came of it, but what was he caught doing?
- Being drunk and disorderly in public
- Stealing from a shop
- Trespassing on private property
- Hanging a message from a bridge
Q: What was Hawking familiar with the Californian police for?
- Riotous parties
- Dangerous driving
- Possession of illegal drugs
Q: When he was a 22-year-old graduate student, Hawking stood up at a scientific meeting and publicly challenged an eminent scientist over an idea he had just presented to the scientific community for the first time. Who was this scientist?
- Fred Hoyle
- Richard Feynman
- Murray Gell-Mann
- Paul Dirac
Q: Hawking was apparently quite reckless with his wheelchair, and allegedly used it as a weapon against people he didn’t like. What is he rumoured to have done when he met Prince Charles?
- Crashed into him because he was walking too slowly in front of him
- Rammed his car because it was blocking his ramp
- Ran over his toes
How Stephen Hawking became the world’s most famous physicist
Q: In his later years, Hawking often spoke to the press, and one topic he spoke about was the future of humanity and what he thought was the biggest threat to its survival. What did he say concerned him in this regard?
- A pandemic
- Nuclear War
- Artificial intelligence
- Aliens that are more intelligent than humans
Q: Stephen Hawking’s death in 2018 was on the anniversary of another very famous scientist’s birthday. Which scientist was it?
- Tycho Brahe
- Nikola Tesla
- Albert Einstein
- Richard Feynman
- A. Galileo Galilei. Hawking was born on 8 January 1942, which was 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo. Seife uses this as an example of Hawking crafting a public image of himself as the intellectual heir of great scientists.
- D. 8 years. Hawking mentions this in a memoir published in the Radio Times in 2013. He described his first school as a very progressive school where you were supposed to learn to read without realizing you were being taught. He said that he remembered complaining to his parents that he wasn’t learning anything. Hawking Hawking quotes his mother as saying “Stephen was a self-educator from the start, and if he didn’t want to learn things, it’s probably because he didn’t need to.”
- B. The boat club. Hawking was a cox in the boat club, but it sounds like he sometimes decided to have a bit of fun with the power this gave him. The boatman who was in charge of putting the crews together is quoted in the book saying “The question always with Stephen was should we make him coxswain of the first eight or the second eight. Some coxes can be very steady people, you see. He was an adventurous type. You never quite knew what he was going to do when he went out with a crew.”
- D. Hanging a message from a bridge. Hawking was caught suspending a plank from one of the bridges across the river as an undergraduate in Oxford. The plank had the message “vote liberal” painted on it, as he was politically quite left-leaning. In the book, it says that, when he was admitted to hospital at 21 when he started experiencing symptoms of his condition, he refused to let his parents pay for a private room for him, because of his socialist principles.
- B. Dangerous driving. Early on in his relationship with his first wife, Jane, the book says she “hung on for dear life” if they went somewhere by car, because he apparently “drove like a man with nothing to lose”. Although he lost the ability to drive himself, he continued to influence others’ driving. A former doctoral student of his, Marika Taylor, said that once she was driving around California with him, and he insisted that she do a U-turn in a place where it said “no U-turn”. The police pulled them over and Taylor said that when they saw who was in the car they said “Oh, hello, Dr Hawking! It’s you again.”
- A. Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was presenting a new idea to a meeting of the Royal Society for the first time, and Hawking stood up and pointed out a flaw in it. Everyone was stunned, thinking Hawking had figured it out there and then. What they didn’t know was that Hawking shared an office with Jayant Narlikar, who had co-written the paper with Hoyle, so he had seen it in advance and had worked out the problem with it in his own time. Instead of telling Narlikar when he figured it out, it seems he saved it to give this dramatic performance. This story was also told in Flashes of Creation, another book we reviewed this year.
- C. Ran over his toes. A reporter asked Hawking about this alleged incident in 2000, and he is quoted as saying “That’s a malicious rumour. I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.” According to the book, he did also apparently crash into people who were walking in front of him too slowly and ram cars that were blocking ramps.
- C. Artificial intelligence. In 2014 Hawking told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans who are limited by slow biological evolution couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” However, Seife uses this as an example of how he sometimes spoke to the media about topics that were outside his field of expertise.
- C. Albert Einstein. Hawking died on 14 March 2018, which was 139 years to the day after Einstein’s birthday. In the book, Seife says that Hawking would have found that hilarious.