Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and best-selling author, passed away Wednesday at the age of 76. His mind roamed the cosmos from the seat of his wheelchair. He embodied human curiosity by pondering the origin of the universe and the nature of gravity.
Hawking was born in Oxford on January 8, 1942. This was 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo, as he liked to point out. His father, research biologist Frank Hawking, went to Oxford to avoid German bombing with mother Isobel Walker. Hawking grew up in London and St. Albans. He received a first-class degree in physics from Oxford and studied cosmology as a postgraduate at Cambridge.
At the age of 21, being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) left him almost entirely paralyzed. In 1964, he was given two to three years to live by doctors.
He and his wife Jane had three children and Hawking published A Brief History of Time in 1988. At the time, Hawking was only able to speak with a voice synthesizer. The book sold more than 10 million copies and Hawking called it “the most popular book never read.”
No scientist has quite reached the level of rock star popularity since Einstein, becoming his generation’s leading voice on exploring gravity and the properties of black holes. In 1973, Hawking and fellow physicist Roger Penrose merged Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum theory. Their discovery transformed the world’s view of black holes.
The pair discovered black holes are not black at all and instead leak radiation and particles before finally exploding and disappearing over the eons. His thesis on particles leaking out of a black hole appears in the 1974 edition of Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?”.
This discovery is known as Hawking radiation, and Hawking wanted the formula for this phenomenon engraved on his tombstone in 2002. In 2007, Hawking took a trip on a specially equipped Boeing 727 designed to fly on a rollercoaster trajectory and give occupants fleeting moments of weightlessness.
Hawking was also witty and stated if he has to choose meeting either Sir Isaac Newton or Marilyn Monroe, he would like to meet the actress.
Having reached celebrity status with his “theory of everything” and Hawking radiation, he became an icon in pop culture. During his lifetime, Stephen Hawking also received 12 honorary degrees. He was also honored with the title of Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), a ranking below knighthood in the 1990s.
Then-president Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hawking in August 2009. Obama tweeted a photo of him and Hawking following his death and said: “have fun out there among the stars.”
The “theory of everything,” as Hawking put it, explains the universe evolves according to a set of well-defined laws. Hawking questioned how the universe began. He asked if the universe will end and, if so, how?
On the big screen, actor Eddie Redmayne portrayed Hawking in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything alongside Felicity Jones. The film received multiple Oscar, British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) and Golden Globe nominations. Redmayne won Best Actor for his performance and the film received several accolades in 2015.
Redmayne told People magazine “we have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist, and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet. My love and thoughts are with his extraordinary family.”
Stephen Hawking appeared on an episode of The Simpsons as a bar patron who might steal Homer’s idea of the universe in the 1999 episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain.”
On The Big Bang Theory, he made sarcastic comments about physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper, comparing him to a black hole. Actor Jim Parsons posted a photo of the Big Bang cast with Hawking on Instagram. Hawking appeared on the show as himself seven times, according to his IMDb page. He appeared alongside Leonard Nimoy in a 2012 episode.
The band Pink Floyd used his voice as the intro in their 1994 song “Keep Talking.” Hawking also appeared on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Futurama.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, tweeted “his passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.”
NASA tweeted about Hawking’s death, saying “his theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring. May you keep flying like superman in microgravity.”
Stephen Hawking is survived by three children and three grandchildren. Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert, and Tim, provided a statement about their father. They said, “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 humor inspired people across the world.”
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