Professor Stephen Hawking, widely regarded as the greatest physicist of our times died peacefully on Wednesday 14 March, his family told the media. He was 76.
Hawking made his mark in the physics world with his work on black holes and the origins of the universe, which greatly expanded our understanding of the Big Bang. Features of the universe, such as the Hawking Radiation emitted by black holes will be a lasting reminder of his contribution. However, his wider fame rested on a combination of his extraordinary perseverance in the face of motor neuron disease and his authorship of the hugely successful popular science book A Brief History of Time.
Although he never won the Nobel Prize, Hawking was recognized with most other awards in physics for which he was eligible. His impact was even wider in the public imagination. Challenged to name a scientist, until his death, Hawking was usually the only name non-scientists could come up with alongside Einstein, Darwin or Newton.
In doing so Hawking put a human face on science and consequently inspired generations of physicists, many of whom are paying tribute to him now.
Hawking’s achievements were more remarkable because most of his work was done after motor neuron disease had made it difficult for him to record his insights as he came to them. Instead, he had to dictate to assistants, or later through slow use of computer aids. Nevertheless, his original diagnosis was much worse, with doctors expecting him to die within two years in 1963. The unusually slow progress of the disease, combined with the development of better medical facilities, helped him survive for decades instead.
The voice synthesizer he used to “speak” with in his later years became iconic, featured in places such as The Simpsons, and becoming for many the symbol both of overcoming adversity, and of the capacity of humanity to understand the universe despite the obstacles we face. His fame was reinforced by his remarkable wit and humor, his compassion for humanity, and warnings about the threats we have made for ourselves in the forms of global warming and artificial intelligence that may turn on us. His life was portrayed in the 2014 film, The Theory of Everything, based on a book by his first wife, Jane Hawking. The couple has three surviving children.
All this meant that for many others, his inspiration extended far beyond his achievements in physics.