Professor Stephen Hawking Dies at 76

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was died at the age of 76.

He died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of Wednesday, his family said.

The Briton was known for his work with black holes and relatively, and wrote several popular science books including A Brief History of Time.

At the age of 22, Prof Hawking was given only a few years to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease.

 I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first

– Stephen Hawking

The illness left him in a wheelchair and largely unable to speak except through a voice synthesiser.

In a statement his children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

They praised his “courage and persistence” and said his “brilliance and humour” inspired people across the world.

“He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

Factfile: Stephen Hawking

  • Born 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England
  • Earned place at Oxford University to read natural science in 1959, before studying for his PhD at Cambridge
  • By 1963, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live
  • Outlined his theory that black holes emit “Hawking radiation” in 1974
  • Published his book A Brief History of Time in 1988, which has sold more than 10 million copies
  • His life story was the subject of the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne

Hawking married his college sweetheart, Jane Wilde, in 1965, two years after his diagnosis. She first set eyes on him in 1962, lolloping down the street in St Albans, his face down, covered by an unruly mass of brown hair. A friend warned her she was marrying into “a mad, mad family”. With all the innocence of her 21 years, she trusted that Stephen would cherish her, she wrote in her 2013 book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.

In 1985, during a trip to Cern, Hawking was taken to hospital with an infection. He was so ill that doctors asked Jane if they should withdraw life support. She refused, and Hawking was flown back to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge for a lifesaving tracheotomy. The operation saved his life but destroyed his voice. The couple had three children, but the marriage broke down in 1991. Hawking’s worsening disability, his demands on Jane, and his refusal to discuss his illness, were destructive forces the relationship could not endure. Jane wrote of him being “a child possessed of a massive and fractious ego,” and how husband and wife became “master” and “slave”.

Changing our understanding of physics

So what did this man who re-envisioned the universe really do? What was his science all about?

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at the Arizona State University and a friend and colleague of Hawking’s, says that at a young age, Hawking discovered something “truly remarkable.”

Karuss says before Hawking, physicists thought that the immense gravity of a black hole would draw everything in and nothing could escape. But by combining quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Hawking showed something astonishing: That theoretically, at least, some kind of particle had to defy what physicists classically expected from gravity, and radiate out of black holes.

“That radiation is now called Hawking radiation,” Krauss told NPR in 2012. “And it changed everything about the way we think about gravity.”

Krauss says Hawking pointed out a fundamental problem with the way physicists understand our world — a problem that Krauss says has yet to be resolved.

“And therefore,” Krauss says, “his influence and his legacy is quite profound.”

Toward the end of his life, Hawking’s disease left him virtually paralyzed. It took an enormous effort for Hawking to communicate, using the tiny movements he could make to control a computer interface. It’s tempting to say that Hawking achieved his fame in spite of his physical challenges.

But in a way, Hawking’s physical challenges may have contributed to his mental prowess, says Kip Thorne, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology who frequently collaborated with Hawking.

“It was because of this handicap that he developed new ways of thinking,” Thorne says, “new ways of wrapping his brain around things that enabled him to out-think anybody else in the field.”

And he out-thought people with great regularity.

Free from gravity

Throughout his life, Hawking was up for a challenge. For example, in 2007, he accepted an offer from Zero G Corporation to experience weightlessness. The company uses a plane that climbs and then dives in such a way that for 25 seconds at a time, everyone inside the plane is weightless.

At a news conference before his flight, Hawking said, “I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades, and the chance to float in zero-G will be wonderful.”

Pictures taken during the flight show what appears to be a very happy physicist floating, chair-free, around the plane’s cabin.

Fitting, really, for the scientist who changed the way we think of gravity to spend a few minutes of his life without it.

 

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