Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist whose theories shaped the universe as we know it, died early Wednesday morning, on the birthday of Albert Einstein. He was 76.
Hawking is regarded as one of the most influential scientists in history, known especially for his study on the origins and design of the universe. His theories changed how we understand black holes and relativity and the Big Bang. But it was the way that Hawking communicated science in best-selling books and lectures, despite suffering from a debilitating disease, that introduced generations of avid fans to the cosmos.
Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford, England on Jan. 8, 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of astronomer Galileo. His father Frank and mother Isobel, a research biologist and a secretary, met and worked at a medical center in London. Though they lived near the English capital, Isobel delivered Stephen in Oxford to avoid the dangers of bombing in London during WWII.
Stephen Hawking would later attend Oxford University, where he’d studied physics before moving to Cambridge University in 1962 to obtain a doctorate in cosmology — the science of the origins and evolution of the universe.
But in 1963, shortly after his 21st birthday, Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — known also as Lou Gehrig’s disease and motor neurone disease — a fatal brain condition that gradually erodes motor skills. Doctors predicted Hawking had two years to live.
Yet Hawking persevered, as his disease progressed slower than expected. He completed his doctorate and married his first wife, Jane Wilde, in 1965. The couple had three children.
After a throat operation in 1985, Hawking designed an electronic voice system, which ultimately allowed for state-of-the-art computerized communication.
Over his visionary career, he published more than 230 articles on the birth of the universe, black holes and quantum mechanics. He proposed mind warping ideas, like in 1983 when he said the universe — space and time — lacked a beginning and an end.
His legacy may be defined by his pursuit of a “unified theory”, an explanation for the discrepancies between the physics of subatomic particles (quantum theory) and the rules of gravity and motion, as described by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
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. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 14, 2018
Hawking’s 1988 book — “A Brief History of Time” — took readers across on a journey to answer that question. “A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence,” he wrote.
The book spent more than five years on the London Sunday Times bestseller list and sold more than 10 million copies over 20 years, even though Hawking later in life suggested that a unified theory may not exist.
When I met #StephenHawking in 2007, I was impressed by his humor and his resilience. The occasion was, after all, his flight on the @GoZeroG plane! Seven years later, I would draw on that example as I grappled with my own disability. Godspeed Stephen Hawking. And thank you.
— Miles O'Brien (@milesobrien) March 14, 2018
The theme inspired the title of Hawking’s 2014 biopic film — “The Theory of Everything” — for which Eddie Redmayne won an Academy Award for best actor. Hawking’s celebrity also included appearances on “The Simpsons,” ″Star Trek,” and the “Big Bang Theory.”
Hawking and Jane Wilde divorced in 1991. He married his nurse — Elaine Mason — four years later, and they divorced in 2006 following rumors of abuse. In 2004, police investigated after a newspaper reported Hawking had sustained injuries to the face and a broken wrist, but they found no evidence of abuse.
In his later years, Hawking would publish a series of children’s books with his daughter Lucy and expanded his musings into fields like the search of alien life and artificial intelligence.
“I accept that there are some things I can’t do,” he once told The Associated Press. “But they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway.”