Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Equal to Anything!" from the new book Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), by Kitty Ferguson.
When Stephen Hawking was twelve years old, two of his schoolmates made a bet about his future. John McClenahan bet that Stephen "would never come to anything"; Basil King, that he would "turn out to be unusually capable." The stake was a bag of candy. Young S. W. Hawking was no prodigy. Some reports claim he was brilliant in a haphazard way, but Hawking remembers that he was just another ordinary English schoolboy, slow learning to read, his handwriting the despair of his teachers. He ranked no more than halfway up in his school class, though he now says, in his defense, "It was a very bright class." Maybe someone might have predicted a career in science or engineering from the fact that Stephen was intensely interested in learning the secrets of how things such as clocks and radios work. He took them apart to find out, but he could seldom reassemble them. Stephen was never well-coordinated physically, not keen on sports or other physical activities, and almost always the last to be chosen for any sports team. John McClenahan had good reason to think he would win the wager.
Basil King probably was just being a loyal friend or liked betting on long shots. Maybe he did see things about Stephen that teachers, parents and Stephen himself couldn't see. He hasn't claimed his bag of sweets, but it's time he does. Because Stephen Hawking, after such an unexceptional beginning, is now one of the intellectual giants of our modern world—and among its most heroic figures. How such transformations happen is a mystery that biographical details alone cannot explain. Hawking would have it that he is still "just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these how and why questions. Occasionally I find an answer."
Stephen William Hawking was born during the Second World War, on January 8, 1942, in Oxford. It was a winter of discouragement and fear, not a happy time to be born. Hawking likes to recall that his birth was exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo, who is called the father of modern science. But few people in January 1942 were thinking about Galileo.
Stephen's parents, Frank and Isobel Hawking, were not wealthy. Frank's very prosperous Yorkshire grandfather had over-extended himself buying farm land and then gone bankrupt in the great agricultural depression of the early twentieth century. His resilient wife, Frank's grandmother and Stephen's great-grandmother, saved the family from complete ruin by opening a school in their home. Her ability and willingness to take this unusual step are evidence that reading and education must already have been a high priority in the family.
Isobel, Stephen's mother, was the second oldest of seven children. Her father was a family doctor in Glasgow. When Isobel was twelve, they moved to Devon.
It wasn't easy for either family to scrape together money to send a child to Oxford, but in both cases they did. Taking on a financial burden of this magnitude was especially unusual in the case of Isobel's parents, for few women went to university in the 1930s. Though Oxford had been admitting female students since 1878, it was only in 1920 that the university had begun granting degrees to women. Isobel's studies ranged over an unusually wide curriculum in a university where students tended to be much more specialized than in an American liberal arts college or university. She studied economics, politics and philosophy.
Stephen's father Frank was a meticulous, determined young man who kept a journal every day from the age of fourteen and would continue it all his life. He was at Oxford earlier than Isobel, studying medical science with a specialty in tropical medicine. When the Second World War broke out he was in East Africa doing field research, and he intrepidly found his way overland to take ship for England and volunteer for military service. He was assigned instead to medical research.
Isobel held several jobs after graduation from Oxford, all of them beneath her ability and credentials as a university graduate. One was as an inspector of taxes. She so loathed that work that she gave it up in disgust to become a secretary at a medical institute in Hampstead. There she met Frank Hawking. They were married in the early years of the war.
In January 1942 the Hawkings were living in Highgate, North London. In the London area hardly a night passed without air raids, and Frank and Isobel Hawking decided Isobel should go to Oxford to give birth to their baby in safety. Germany was not bombing Oxford or Cambridge, the two great English university towns, reputedly in return for a British promise not to bomb Heidelberg and Göttingen. In Oxford, the city familiar from her recent university days, Isobel spent the final week of her pregnancy first in a hotel and then, as the birth grew imminent and the hotel grew nervous, in the hospital, but she was still able to go out for walks to fill her time. On one of those leisurely winter days, she happened into a bookshop and, with a book token, bought an astronomical atlas. She would later regard this as a rather prophetic purchase.
Reprinted from Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, by Kitty Ferguson, by arrangement with Palgrave Macmillan. Copyright © 2012, by Kitty Ferguson.