Pioneering Physicist Stephen Hawking Dies at 76

Stephen Hawking attends the EE British Academy Film Awards on February 8, 2015 in London. Photo: John Phillips/Getty Images

Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist who shed new light on the mysteries of the universe and made complicated scientific theories accessible to the public, died on Wednesday at the age of 76.

A University of Cambridge spokesman said Hawking died at his home in Cambridge, England, but did not provide further details. Hawking had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and his health had been deteriorating in recent years. The Associated Press noted that he canceled a series of lectures in 2015 due to poor health, and was hospitalized due to an infection in 2009.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” his children Lucy, Robert, and Tim said in a statement. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor 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 forever.”

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963, when he was a 21-year-old graduate student. People who have the disease typically die within five years of diagnosis, and Hawking fell into a depression when he was given two years to live. However, when the disease progressed more slowly than expected, he forged ahead with his studies, completing his doctorate and becoming the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position previously held by Isaac Newton. Hawking is believed to be the disease’s longest-living survivor.

Hawking’s first major scientific contribution was his finding that black holes — which were once thought to be so dense that nothing could escape their gravity — might actually emit thermal radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. The calculation was published in 1974 in the journal Nature. This was a revolutionary finding that helped scientists move toward a “unified” theory that would resolve contradictions between Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics.

“Black holes ain’t as black as they are painted,” Hawking once said. “They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly, to another universe. So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.”

Aside from possessing a brilliant scientific mind, Hawking had a gift for explaining complex physics in terms that people found engaging and understandable. His 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which tackles the history of the universe, became an international best seller. Hawking celebrity grew as he wrote more best sellers, lectured widely, and made guest appearances on TV shows such as The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Hawking was an advocate for the disabled, and refused to let being paralyzed and limited to communicating through a computerized voice synthesizer keep him from pursuing and promoting scientific research. When he took a flight on a “zero-gravity” jet in 2007, he said he wanted to encourage public interest in space flight and show “that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.”

Hawking had a tumultuous personal life, which was portrayed in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, earning Eddie Redmayne a best actor Academy Award. Hawking met his first wife Jane Wilde in 1965, shortly before his diagnosis. She spent decades caring for Hawking and their three children, and eventually their marriage grew strained. In 1990 he left her for his nurse, Elaine Mason, and they married five years later. Hawking and Mason divorced in 2006.

“From his wheelchair, he’s led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos,” Barack Obama said when Hawking was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2009. “In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and shown us the power of the human spirit here on earth.”

Pioneering Physicist Stephen Hawking Dies at 76