Prof Stephen Hawking too unwell to deliver own 70th birthday speech
But Prof Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday speech was given added poignancy today by a rather notable absence – that of the eminent physicist himself.
Although forced to cancel his appearance at the last minute after failing to recover from an infection, the professor’s distinctive voice still rang out across the Cambridge hall, as guests including Sir Richard Branson and Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, enjoyed a pre-recorded version of his lecture.
Prof Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease, always records his speeches in advance but uses muscles in his cheek to play each sentence when delivering them live.
These sentence-cueing duties were taken by an assistant, while projected photographs from the professor’s early life and career covered his absence from the stage.
The lecture was frequently punctuated with laughter as the professor lived up to his reputation for dry humour and witty one-liners.
In a moving address, Prof Hawking described how his diagnosis with motor neurone disease at 21 had helped transform him from a gifted but lazy student into one of the world’s most eminent academics.
Doctors initially gave him just a few years to live, but almost 50 years on his most famous book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10m copies and his fame has been cemented with guest appearances on The Simpsons and Star Trek.
Speaking about the impact of his initial diagnosis, he said: “At first I became depressed. I seemed to be getting worse pretty rapidly. There didn’t seem any point working on my PhD because I didn’t know if I would live long enough to finish it.
“But then the condition developed more slowly and I began to make progress in my work. After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus and I began to appreciate everything I did have.
“There was also a young woman called Jane whom I had met at a party. Getting engaged lifted my spirits and I realised if we were going to get married I had to get a job and finish my PhD. I began to work hard and I enjoyed it.”