Stephen Hawking, the world famous theoretical physicist, has passed away at the age of 76. His family confirmed his death Wednesday morning saying that he passed away in his Cambridge home.
Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said in a statement: “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. His courage and persistence with 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.”
Hawking was diagnosed in 1963, at the age of 21, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and was given two years to live by doctors. It was later discovered he had a rare slow-progressing form of the disease, which is one of the reasons why he was able to live for 55 years instead of two.
Years after his diagnosis, Hawking said of the impact it had on his life, “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research.” The goal of that research, as he put it: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
Hawking’s work as a theoretical physicist brought him early acclaim in the 1970’s when he and Roger Penrose, working together, were able to show mathematically that a singularity, or an infinitely curved region of space-time, was the point that the Big Bang originated. Later in the same decade, Hawking again made waves when he predicted Hawking radiation. This is the term that applies to theoretical electromagnetic radiation that black holes emit, ultimately leading to their evaporation.
In 1988, Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time, a book which detailed the history of the universe, as well as the history of our scientific understanding of it. The book was a #1 bestseller and helped propel Hawking to the status of pop culture icon.
As Hawking’s children pointed out in their statement, Hawking was known to have quite the sense of humor as well. One of Hawking’s colleagues, physicist Leonard Mlodinow, said to the press, "As hard as it was for him to communicate, he would sit there sometimes, and would take five or six minutes to be typing something out. And then when he hit speak, and his system voices his words, it would be a joke."
Hawking was also well-known for publicly remarking on his lack of belief in God or an afterlife. In a 2011 series, Curiosity, for the Discovery Channel Hawking said, “We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.” You can catch the clip with that quote here at the 0:40 mark.
One of my earliest memories of Stephen Hawking was seeing him on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was 11 years old when the episode aired, and while I did know who he was, it was the first time I really had the chance to see him, and hear him speak through his wheelchair’s computer. After watching the episode I sought out more information about him, learning about his scientific work, his ALS diagnosis, and eventually reading A Brief History of Time a few years later. When I began studying physics in high school and college, Stephen Hawking had definitely become a role model in that pursuit.
Stephen Hawking gave us some tremendous new insights of the cosmos and of ourselves during his career and life. He never attained his goal of a complete understanding of the universe, but he never stopped working towards it. That persistence is something to be valorized and emulated. With his passing it is up to the rest of us, and our descendants, to continue learning about the universe and our place in it.