Science & Tech

World-Renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking Dead at 76

Physicist Stephen Hawking sits on stage during an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative with investor Yuri Milner in New York, April 12, 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has passed away at 76.

The author of A Brief History of Time died peacefully in his home in Cambridge, England, early Wednesday morning.

Hawking is known for redefining the basics of physics, perhaps more than anyone since Albert Einstein. The Oxford and Cambridge graduate craved a solution to the inconsistencies between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics. He sought, as he put it, a “theory of everything” that would allow mankind to understand itself and the world it calls home, but he cautioned he was not sure such a theory existed.

Hawking was also known also for his studies of black holes, which he discovered produce what since come to be known as “Hawking radiation.” Though he was an atheist who once said that “asking what happens before the Big Bang is like asking for a point one mile north of the North Pole,” he remained fascinated with the kinds of cosmic questions religion purports to answer.

“One can’t help asking the question,” he said. “Why does the universe exist? I don’t know an operational way to give the question or the answer, if there is one, a meaning. But it bothers me.”

The spry professor kept his sense of humor and a zest for his work up to his death, despite being paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since he was 21. The scientist stunned doctors by surviving for decades after he was given two years to live. Pneumonia left him unable to speak, but he communicated for decades through his famous robotic voice synthesizer.

Even in his paralyzed condition, Hawking continued his scientific work in the public eye. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a role once filled by Sir Isaac Newton. And he became a very recognizable figure in popular as well as academic culture, appearing on Star Trek: The Next GenerationThe Big Bang Theory, and many other shows.

Among many other awards, Hawking was made a Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989, and he received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Remembrances from colleagues poured in as the news of his death spread.

“Professor Hawking was a unique individual who will be remembered with warmth and affection not only in Cambridge but all over the world,” said Professor Stephen Toope, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge. “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.”

In a tweet, NASA fondly recalled the scientist’s address to the International Space Station in 2014.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” his three children said in a statement. “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 forever.”

Correction: This article originally stated that Hawking visited the International Space Station in 2014. In fact, he spoke to astronauts aboard the ISS from Earth.

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