Professor Stephen Hawking, the English theoretical physicist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge has passed away at age 76, a spokesman for his family confirmed on Tuesday night. Hawking, a devotee of black holes, and a specialist in cosmology and quantum gravity, introduced the world to an entirely new way of thinking about the universe in his 1988 publication of a
A Brief History of Time; he was the world’s most famous living physicist.
Hawking became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982, after which he was honored with awards like the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Paul Dirac Medal, the Wolf Prize, the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize, the Copley Medal, the Russian Fundamental Physics Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 (the citation for which concluded that “his persistence and dedication has unlocked new pathways of discovery and inspired everyday citizens”).
He made appearances on popular TV shows like The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, Futurama and Star Trek: The Next Generation, always as a version of himself. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sampled Hawking for the song “Keep Talking” on the band’s album, Division Bell, and Philip Glass included a version of him in his 1992 opera, The Voyage.
Hawking’s diagnosis, at age 21, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was depicted in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, and he spent nearly all of his adult life bound to a wheelchair, dependent on a computerized voice system for communication.
He didn’t let such things impair his busy schedule, or his frequent public appearances, which he used to raise awareness about issues like global warming, and the imperiled future of the planet, and our purpose on it—which in his view, was a lot less grand than you might think. “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star,” he said. “But we can understand the Universe.
That makes us something very special.” In 2008, Hawking gave a Ted talk called “Questioning the Universe,” in which he stated his belief that in order for humanity (and its “selfish, and aggressive instincts”) to survive, it would need to expand beyond Earth; that same year he spoke to NASA on the same topic, saying that “Spreading out into space will… completely change the future of the human race, and maybe determine whether we have any future at all.”
Hawking was married twice. He and his first wife, Jane Wilde, wed when he was still a grad student and remained together for 30 years before divorcing in 1995. Hawking was later married for 11 years to Elaine Mason, one of his former nurses.
Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on what turned out to be an auspicious date: January 8, 1942 — the 300th anniversary of the death of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.
In an exclusive interview with CNN in October 2008, Hawking said that if humans can survive the next 200 years and learn to live in space, then our future will be bright.
“I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” Hawking told Emit Post.
“It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next 100 years, let alone next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”
At Cambridge, he held the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics — the prestigious post held from 1669 to 1702 by Sir Isaac Newton, widely considered one of the greatest scientists in modern history.
Yet Hawking once said if he had the chance to meet Newton or Marilyn Monroe, he would opt for the movie star.
Hawking became a hero to math and science geeks and pop culture figure, guest-starring as himself on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons.” His life was dramatized in the 2014 movie, “The Theory of Everything.”
He had at least 12 honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982. A CBE, or Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is considered a major honor for a British citizen and is one rank below knighthood.
Despite being a British citizen he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor, in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
In September 2016 Hawking joined 375 “concerned” scientists in penning an open letter criticizing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, citing the threat of climate change and blasting his push for the US to leave the Paris Accord.
Fellow scientists hailed Hawking for his work and influence in the field.
“His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake,” tweeted Neil deGrasse Tyson. “But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.”
“A star just went out in the cosmos,” tweeted Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. “We have lost an amazing human being.”
Hawking leaves behind three children and three grandchildren, according to his website.
“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said in a statement. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world.”