Stephen Hawking, renowned theoretical physicist and author of “A Short History of Time,” died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, England on Wednesday morning. Although his family did not disclose the cause of death at this time, they released a statement commemorating his contributions to science as well as his “courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor.” He leaves behind a wife, Lucy, and two sons, Tim and Robert.
Hawking was born in Oxford, England, in 1942 on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. His father was a physician who primarily treated tropical diseases and his mother was a Liberal Party activist. He finished an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, where he studied physics and participated in rowing as an extracurricular activity. Upon graduation, he pursued a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1965 and later worked as a professor of mathematics from 1979 to 2009.
Beyond his contributions to cosmology, mathematics, and theoretical physics, Hawking also overcame a debilitating disease that is generally fatal within several years of diagnosis. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 1963. He was 21 years old. The disease ultimately left him wheelchair-bound, unable to move more than his fingers on one hand, and dependent on a speech synthesizer to communicate. Although doctors predicted that he would not live past his twenties, he went on to lead a fulfilling life and is regarded as one of the most prolific scientists of the century.
Among many scientific achievements, Hawking contributed new theories surrounding black holes and their relationship with the laws of physics. He also interpreted Einstein’s theory of relativity as a mathematical model that revolutionized thermodynamics and the entire study of quantum physics. His work involving applied mathematics and physics earned the Albert Einstein Medal in 1978, the most prestigious award for theoretical physicists. In 2009, Hawking was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, the highest medal awarded to civilians in the United States.
In 1988, Hawking wrote “A Brief History of Time,” which theorized the past, present, and future of the known universe. The book was an international bestseller and has since sold millions of copies as well as been translated into over twenty languages. He also wrote “The Universe in a Nutshell,” “A Briefer History of Time,” and a 2013 memoir entitled “My Brief History.” In all, Hawking wrote or co-wrote 15 books over the course of his illustrious career.
Although some colleagues criticized his cultural appeal as superficial, Hawking embraced his celebrity status with humor and warmth. He was fond of pop culture and made brief cameos on “The Simpsons,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and other television shows. He also provided a voice-over for a commercial that British rock band Pink Floyd sampled on their album “The Division Bell.” In 2014, Hawking’s early life was depicted in the Oscar-winning biopic “The Theory of Everything,” in which he was played by British actor Eddie Redmayne. He was said to have enjoyed the film and approved of Redmayne’s portrayal.
Hawking’s contributions to science, perseverance while living with ALS, and ability to explain scientific theories in everyday terms brought him deserved admiration and respect. He was known for his brilliance, his humor, and his positive outlook on humanity. In response to his death, his family released the following quote by Hawking to summarize his legacy and his spirit: “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”