Graphic shows biography of Stephen Hawking.


World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking dies

By Duncan Mil

March 14, 2018 - World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. He died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of Wednesday, his family said.

Hawking, who was paralysed by motor neurone disease for over 55 years, is renowned for his work on black holes, cosmology and quantum gravity but is perhaps best known as the author of A Brief History of Time, which has sold over 10 million copies since its publication in 1988.

It was a few months before his 1965 wedding to linguist Jane Wilde that a brilliant graduate research student took a tumble down a flight of stairs at Cambridge University. Stephen Hawking, the eldest of four children whose mother had escaped the London Blitz to give birth to him in the relative safety of Oxford, had been growing increasingly unsteady on his feet and had begun to have difficulty with his speech. Doctors had declared the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS -- a type of motor neurone disease -- two years earlier when Hawking was 21. Now came dramatic proof that the incurable condition, in which the body’s muscles -- including those needed to keep breathing -- gradually stop working, was progressing. With an average survival rate of two or three years, Hawking did not expect to live long enough to finish his PhD. His bride-to-be later reflected that this was the era of nuclear warfare development, the four-minute warning; in such an atmosphere the couple went ahead with their marriage. "We were great ones for taking a chance on life," she said.

In the decades since, Hawking challenged conventional thinking on many fronts, from his illness -- his case is the most extended recorded for a person with ALS -- to the origins of the universe itself. In 1974, this exceptional young physicist, whose father had been a research biologist, put forward groundbreaking theories about the nature of black holes, areas of spacetime with an intense gravitational pull from which nothing can escape. Hawking argued that black holes were not completely dark and did, in fact, emit radiation, thereby providing the key to understanding how the universe was formed. He further conjectured that the cosmos was boundless and that its beginning was down to the laws of science, without any need for a creator. His insights earned him membership of the Royal Society -- a fellowship of the world's most eminent scientists -- at the unusually tender age of 32.

Following in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, who 300 years earlier had discovered the law of gravity on which Hawking built his theories, he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1979, a post he would hold for the next 20 years. He might have remained celebrated only within academic circles had he not wished to share his knowledge with a non-specialist public. A Brief History of Time was such an instant success that when the publishers, realising a photograph had been printed upside down, attempted to recall it, they found all the books had been bought. Since then there have been several reprints with some 10 million copies sold. Hawking wrote that his goal was simple: “..complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all.”

An emergency tracheotomy to save him from pneumonia robbed Hawking of the remains of his voice in 1985, and he became associated with a voice synthesiser which he operated with his cheek. His marriage to Jane, with whom he had three children, broke down after, as she put it, “fame and fortune muddied the waters and..took him way out of the orbit of our family.” Hawking married his nurse, Elaine Mason, in 1995 but divorced her 11 years later amid claims, by other carers, that she had physically abused him. With his daughter, Lucy, Hawking published a series of science books for children, from whom he received many inquiring letters.

Hawking gained popularity outside the academic world and appeared in several TV shows including The Simpsons, Red Dwarf and The Big Bang Theory. In 2014 his life story was portrayed in the award-winning film, The Theory of Everything.

PUBLISHED: 14/03/2018; STORY: Susan Shepherd; PICTURES: Hubble Space Telescope, Getty Images