Stephen Hawking, legendary physicist and author, dies at 76

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Mar 14, 2018, 4:34 PM EDT (Updated)

Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist and author who battled physical limitations to change the way we think about the universe, passed away Wednesday at his home in Cambridge. He was 76. Hawking's children Lucy, Robert, and Tim confirmed his death in a statement.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years," the statement read. "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 for ever.”

The University of Cambridge also confirmed his passing in a tribute to his accomplishments.

“Professor Hawking was a unique individual who will be remembered with warmth and affection not only in Cambridge but all over the world," Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said. "His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularisation of science and mathematics have left an indelible legacy. His character was an inspiration to millions. He will be much missed.”

Born in 1942, Hawking attended Oxford to earn an undergraduate degree in physics, then went on to Cambridge to work on his Ph.D. It was then, in 1963 at the age of 21, that he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease that kills the motor neurons that allow muscle movement. Hawking was initially told by doctors that he only had a few years to live, but his particular experience with the disease progressed more slowly. He was eventually confined to a wheelchair, and in later years could only move a few small muscles voluntarily, allowing him to operate a speech device, but his extraordinary brain never stopped.

Hawking once said that his goal as a scientist was "a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all,” and he applied himself to this goal perhaps most famously through the study of black holes. Through long calculations in which he applied quantum theory to the mysterious cosmic objects, Hawking discovered that black holes are not simply voids that erase all light. They also eventually fade away, giving off particles in the process, and explode into the cosmos. After this discovery, the particles emitted by black holes became known as "Hawking radiation," and Hawking's 1974 paper "Black Hole Explosions?" is still considered a key moment on the path to the discovery of a "theory of everything" that could eventually provide a singular framework for how the universe works.

In 1988, Hawking published his most famous work: A Brief History of Time, his attempt to explain cosmology to a mainstream audience. It remains among the best-selling popular science books of all time, and established Hawking in the public consciousness as one of the scientists to listen to. 

Hawking's seemingly endless energy — in addition to research and writing, he also traveled frequently to scientific conferences and events — made him a household name, while his determination to keep working and enjoying life while living with ALS made him an inspiration. Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist loomed so large as a public figure. His brilliance, sense of humor, and ability to engage audiences at all levels of scientific fluency took him beyond the realm of respected scientific mind and into the realm of celebrity. Over the years he made numerous cameo appearances on nerd favorites like Star Trek: The Next GenerationThe Simpsons, and Futurama. He may have been confined to a wheelchair, but he always seemed to be everywhere.

We'll leave you with this tribute from fellow physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

(Via The Guardian and The New York Times)

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