Stephen Hawking, the preeminent physicist whose unmistakable voice and brilliant conjectures about the cosmos transformed our understanding of the universe, died at age 76 early this morning. Like Einstein, who was born on this day in 1879, Hawking’s name was synonymous with genius, curiosity, and a facetious sense of humor.
“Stephen Hawking leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as a scientist, a popularizer, and as a figure of courage,” cosmologist and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll told NOVA Next. “His work on black holes and the Big Bang left an indelible imprint on modern physics.”
Moreover, Hawking’s insight that black holes give off a tiny bit of radiation, now referred to as Hawking radiation, “bequeathed to the physics community a beautiful conundrum: if information falls into a black hole, how does it eventually escape back out? Decades later, some of the world’s brightest minds are continually struggling with this problem,” Carroll said.
“It is said that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, but nowhere is that more true than in the case of black holes,” Hawking said at the April 2016 inauguration of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University, the world’s first institute dedicated to black hole research.
Especially in recent years, Hawking came to represent a sort of male Sybil: a scientist of such colossal stature that any proclamation from the seat of his wheelchair—where he suffered for years from Lou Gehrig’s disease—was experienced by many as a ripe, newfound truth.
Of course, science doesn’t work that way, and Hawking himself was prone to discarding ideas as quickly as he proposed them. Still, he managed to produce a huge tome of discoveries in his improbably long life. He’s perhaps most notable for positing that the Big Bang started from a singularity, that black holes radiate energy, and that quantum fluctuations in the early universe could have given birth to the approximately 100 billion galaxies gliding through the universe today.
He accomplished all of this while living with physical decay—and the threat of death—for nearly half a century. At age 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). His doctors told him he had less than three years to live, but Hawking’s version of the disease progressed very slowly. His mind, meanwhile, remained cogent and fully-functioning. When his body dealt him a setback, he pressed forward. Once he lost the ability to speak, for example, Intel manufactured Hawking’s iconic voice.
“Despite a devastating neurological disease that put him in a wheelchair and ultimately made it difficult for him to speak or feed himself, Hawking maintained active research at the frontier of physics and cosmology until his death,” theoretical physicist and mathematician Frank Wilczek told NOVA Next. “Several of his students and postdocs are leaders in those fields today. He also had a passion to share his enthusiasm for science and opinions on big issues to the public, where he won a huge, devoted following.”
“Hawking had one of the world’s great senses of humor, and the fact that he lived to the age of 76 demonstrates that he once again got the last laugh,” Carroll said.