Stephen Hawking, Superstar Physicist, Author and Cultural Icon Dies at 76

Hawking made intergalactic science a popular subject

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist, cosmologist and author whose insights made him a scientific icon, and whose life inspired the film “The Theory of Everything,” starring Eddie Redmayne, has died at age 76.

“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,” his children, Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement. “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 for ever.”

Born in Oxford in 1942, Hawking was famous not just for his scientific achievements, but also as a science communicator with an uncanny ability to connect with laypersons. His skill at explaining mindbending ideas, like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, made him both one of the most respected scientists of his era and a global pop-culture icon.

But his myriad successes came in contrast to physical infirmity caused by a lifelong struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Hawking was diagnosed with a rare, early-onset form of ALS when he was just 21 years old, and was given a life expectancy of only two years. He outlived that diagnosis by more than five decades, but the disease eventually robbed him of his ability to speak.

However, in 1986, after years of relying on family and friends to interpret for him, he was gifted a computer program, “Equalizer,” that allowed him to select from words, phrases, and letters that were then spoken by a computerized voice. A computer running the software was soon installed on his wheelchair, allowing Hawking to “speak” with relative freedom.

Because the software was developed in the United States, Hawking’s new voice spoke with an American accent. Hawking refused to switch to an English accent, saying in 2006 that he preferred and identified with his computerized voice. And so it was that his fame became inextricably linked to the calm, robotic voice speaking his words, a voice he eventually copyrighted.

Though reportedly an indifferent student during his undergraduate years at Oxford, Hawking flourished during his graduate studies at Cambridge and by the late 1960s and early 1970s was known for an astonishing run of important discoveries. Hawking was best known as a scientist for his work on black holes, theorizing that they emitted a form of radiation despite the prevailing consensus at the time that nothing could possibly escape from the gravity of a black hole. His theories have become widely accepted and the radiation predicted to emit from black holes is now called Hawking radiation. He was also known and respected for his work attempting to unify Einstein’s general theory of relativity with quantum physics.

He was elected to the Royal Society in 1974, at the time one of the youngest-ever inductees, and in 1979 was named the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, a post whose previous holders included Isaac Newton and Charles Babbage.

He would go on to publish several best-selling works of popular science, beginning with his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” in which he set out to explain cosmology, the study of the universe, to readers with little or no prior understanding of complex scientific theories. The title “A Brief History of Time” was subsequently used for a 1991 documentary about Hawking himself, directed by Errol Morris with music by Philip Glass.

The success of “A Brief History of Time” propelled him to global fame, and for some his name was synonymous with the word genius in much the same way Albert Einstein’s was. He became known for guest appearances on science-and-nerd-friendly TV shows including “Star Trek” The Next Generation,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and multiple appearances on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” He also lent his voice to a Pink Floyd song.

Hawking was married twice: first, to Jane Hawking, portrayed by Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” from 1965 until their divorce in 1995; and to Elaine Mason from 1995 until 2006. He is survived by his children, including daughter Lucy, a journalist, novelist, and science educator.