Stephen HawkingBRITISH scientist Stephen Hawking has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe but he has left one mystery unsolved: how he has managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease.

The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Most people die within a few years of the diagnosis, but tomorrow Hawking will turn 70.

“I don’t know of anyone who’s survived this long,” said Ammar Al-Chalabi, director of the Motor Neurone Disease Care and Research Centre at King’s College London. He does not treat Hawking and described his longevity as “extraordinary”.

“It is unusual for (motor neurone disease) patients to survive for decades, but not unheard of,” said Rup Tandan, a neurology professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. His subsequent theories have revolutionised modern understanding of concepts such as black holes and the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.

To mark his birthday, Cambridge University is holding a public symposium on “The State of the Universe”, featuring talks from 27 leading scientists, including Hawking.

For 30 years, he held a mathematics post at the university previously held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking retired from that position in 2009 and is now director of research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralysed and in a wheelchair since 1970. He has round-the-clock care and communicates only by twitching his right cheek, relying on a computer and voice synthesiser to speak. It can take up to 10 minutes for Hawking to formulate a single sentence.

Motor neurone disease attacks cells that control the muscles. Only about 10 per cent of patients live longer than a decade, and life expectancy generally ranges from two to five years.

Mr Al-Chalabi and colleagues are analysing a DNA sample from Hawking, along with those of other patients, to see if there is something rare about his disease or any genetic mutations that could explain his long survival and if that information could be used to help others.

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