Best-known theoretical physicist of his time, Stephen Hawking, dies
In 2007, Stephen Hawking experiences weightlessness during a zero-gravity flight. Asked why he took such risks, he said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” | AP

LONDON (AP) — Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant mind ranged across time and space though his body was paralyzed by disease, died early Wednesday, a University of Cambridge spokesman said. He was 76 years old. Hawking died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, England.

The best-known theoretical physicist of his time, Hawking wrote so lucidly of the mysteries of space, time and black holes that his book, “A Brief History of Time,” became an international best seller, making him one of science’s biggest celebrities since Albert Einstein.

“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.”

Even though his body was attacked by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, when Hawking was 21, he stunned doctors by living with the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years. A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesizer that gave him his distinctive robotic monotone. But he continued his scientific work, appeared on television and married for a second time.

As one of Isaac Newton’s successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (from 1979 through 2008), Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a “unified theory.”

Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects like planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.

“A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence,” Hawking wrote in “A Brief History of Time.”

He followed up “A Brief History of Time” in 2001 with the more accessible sequel “The Universe in a Nutshell,” updating readers on concepts like super gravity, naked singularities and the possibility of an 11-dimensional universe.

The combination of his best-selling book and his almost total disability — for a while he could use a few fingers, later he could only tighten the muscles on his face — made him one the most recognizable scientists in the world.

He made cameo television appearances in “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek” and counted among his fans guitarist The Edge, who attended a January 2002 celebration of Hawking’s 60th birthday.

His early life was chronicled in the 2014 film “The Theory of Everything,” with Eddie Redmayne winning the best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the scientist. The film focused still more attention on Hawking’s remarkable achievements.

Richard Green, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association — the British name for ALS — said Hawking met the classic definition of the disease, as “the perfect mind trapped in an imperfect body.” He said Hawking had been an inspiration to people with the disease for many years.

Although it could take him minutes to compose answers to even simple questions Hawking said the disability did not impair his work. It certainly did little to dampen his ambition to physically experience space himself: Hawking savored small bursts of weightlessness in 2007 when he was flown aboard a jet that made repeated dives to simulate zero-gravity. Asked why he took such risks, he said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.”

Hawking first earned prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as “Hawking radiation.”

In 2004, he announced that he had revised his previous view that objects sucked into black holes simply disappeared, perhaps to enter an alternate universe. Instead, he said he believed objects could be spit out of black holes in a mangled form.

That new theory capped his three-decade struggle to explain a paradox in scientific thinking: How can objects really “disappear” inside a black hole and leave no trace, as he long believed, when subatomic theory says matter can be transformed but never fully destroyed?

Hawking’s other major scientific contribution was to cosmology, the study of the universe’s origin and evolution. Working with Jim Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Hawking proposed in 1983 that space and time might have no beginning and no end. “Asking what happens before the Big Bang is like asking for a point one mile north of the North Pole,” he said.

Hawking was born Jan. 8, 1942, in Oxford, and grew up in London and St. Albans, northwest of the capital. In 1959, he entered Oxford University and then went on to graduate work at Cambridge.

Signs of illness appeared in his first year of graduate school, and he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankee star who died of it. The disease usually kills within three to five years.

According to John Boslough, author of “Stephen Hawking’s Universe,” Hawking became deeply depressed. But as it became apparent that he was not going to die soon, his spirits recovered and he bore down on his work. Brian Dickie, director of research at the MNDA, said only 5 percent of those diagnosed with ALS survive for 10 years or longer. Hawking, he added, “really is at the extreme end of the scale when it comes to survival.”

Hawking married Jane Wilde in 1965 and they had three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy. She cared for Hawking for 20 years, until a grant from the United States paid for the 24-hour care he required.

Hawking divorced Wilde in 1991, an acrimonious split that strained his relationship with their children. Writing in her autobiographical “Music to Move the Stars,” she said the strain of caring for Hawking for nearly three decades had left her feeling like “a brittle, empty shell.” Hawking married his one-time nurse Elaine Mason four years later, but they separated in 2006.

Lucy Hawking said her father had an exasperating “inability to accept that there is anything he cannot do.” “I accept that there are some things I can’t do,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “But they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway.” Then, grinning widely, he added, “I seem to manage to do anything that I really want.”

Hawking’s website: http://www.hawking.org.uk

Some reactions to the death of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking:

“His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, on Twitter.

“His contributions to science will be used as long as there are scientists, and there are many more scientists because of him. He spoke about the value and fragility of human life and civilization and greatly enhanced both.” — University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox, on Twitter.

“We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet. My love and thoughts are with his extraordinary family.” — actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in the 2014 film “The Theory Of Everything.”

“He was a true genius who had a great admiration of and connection to the public. … He simplified and explained, but without gimmicks. His assumption that people are curious about the universe and black holes was true. He inspired us all to wonder.” — Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association.

“He inspired generations to look beyond our own blue planet and expand our understanding of the universe. His personality and genius will be sorely missed.” — British astronaut Tim Peake on Twitter.

“Along with groundbreaking and inspiring work came another attribute that made Stephen a hero not just to younger generations, but also to his peers. A longtime friend to NASA, Stephen was a passionate communicator who wanted to share the excitement of discovery with all.” — acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

“So sad. One of the most brilliant persons and one of my greatest hero’s has died. RIP Stephen Hawking!!” — Scott Marshall, retired steelworker and SOAR activist.

Israeli newspaper Harretz commented on Hawking’s “complicated relationship” with Israel – he supported the academic boycott: “Stephen Hawking was critical of Israel and supported BDS, but also visited Israel a number of times and based his revolutionary theory on the works of an Israeli scientist [Jacob Bekenstein].”

Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. based organization — “What a loss. Stephen Hawking has died. A brilliant mind and a principled person, in 2013 Hawking backed an academic boycott of Israel.”

Some quotes from Stephen Hawking:

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in 2015, the scientist predicted that economic inequality will skyrocket as more jobs become automated and the rich owners of machines refuse to share their fast-proliferating wealth.

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

On climate change: “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face and it’s one we can prevent.”

On aliens: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

On sending humans to Mars: “Stupid. Robots would do a better job and be much cheaper because you don’t have to bring them back.”

On fame and his disability: “The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.”

Barbara Russum contributed to this article.


CONTRIBUTOR

Robert Barr
Robert Barr

Robert Barr writes for Associated Press from London, England.

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