What They Don't Teach You at Oxford

Sarah Lee/Eyevine

When he isn't advancing our understanding of black holes, quantum mechanics and relativity, Stephen Hawking writes books, like A Brief History of Time, that explain the origin of the universe. That book spent 147 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and has sold 10 million copies. He is, most agree, wicked smart.

In his recently published autobiography My Brief History, Hawking—who has a motor neuron disease that has left him almost completely paralyzed and communicating through a speech-generating device—offers five life lessons on how to become a genius. They are not exactly scientific, but you can take that up with him.

1) Don't work too hard at school.

Hawking says the prevailing attitude among undergraduates at Oxford University, when he studied there, was anti-work: "I once calculated that I did about 1,000 hours' work in the three years I was there, about an hour a day," he wrote. Lectures? Those are for chumps.

2) Don't miss opportunities by being too cool.

"We affected an air of complete boredom and the feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for. One result of my illness has been to change all that. When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do." Seize the moment, or carpe diem, as Oxford types would say.

3) Keep it simple.

When writing A Brief History of Time, he abandoned jargon and mathematical formulae to make science understandable for the rest of us. "I was sure that nearly everyone is interested in how the universe operates, but most people cannot follow mathematical equations." He has trouble with them, too. "This is partly because it is difficult for me to write them down, but mainly because I don't have an intuitive feeling for equations. Instead I think in pictorial terms, and my aim in the book was to describe these mental images in words, with the help of familiar analogies and a few diagrams." The moral: You don't have to be a genius to know that jargon kills brain cells.

4) Have fun.

Hawking has a long history of pranksterism, and he's placed numerous bets with fellow scientists on the nature of black holes. One was with Caltech scientist John Preskill over the "information paradox" – Hawking believed information swallowed up by a black hole is hidden forever from the rest of the universe and will never be released, even if a black hole evaporates. Later Hawking determined that some information does return when a black hole disappears, but not in a useful way. By way of illustration, after paying off his bet by giving Preskill a baseball encyclopedia, Hawking wrote, "but maybe I should have just given him the ashes." So lighten up! Geniuses like bad jokes too.

5) Always look for the silver lining (even if you contract Lou Gehrig's disease).

Hawking was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, in his early 20s. It has slowly robbed him of the ability to walk, move his arms, even speak. But, Hawking says, "my disability has not been a serious handicap in my scientific work. In fact, in some ways I guess it has been an asset: I haven't had to lecture or teach undergraduates, and I haven't had to sit on tedious and time-consuming committees. So I have been able to devote myself completely to research." In other words, Hawking was given lemons, and he made Champagne.