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Stephen Hawking, Who Examined the Universe and Explained Black Holes, Dies at 76

Stephen W. Hawking, the British theoretical physicist who overcame a devastating neurological disease to probe the greatest mysteries of the cosmos and become a globally celebrated symbol of the power of the human mind, has died at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
His family announced the death but did not provide any further details.
Unable to move a muscle, speechless but for a computer-synthesised voice, Dr. Hawking had suffered since the age of 21 from a degenerative motor neuron disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Initially given two years to live, a diagnosis that threw him into a profound depression, he found the strength to complete his doctorate and rise to the position of Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the same post held by Isaac Newton 300 years earlier.
Dr. Hawking eventually became one of the planet’s most renowned science popularises, and he embraced the attention, travelling the world, meeting with presidents, visiting Antarctica and Easter Island, and flying on a special “zero-gravity” jet whose parabolic flight let Dr. Hawking float through the cabin as if he were in outer space.
“My goal is simple,” he once said. “It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” He spent much of his career searching for a way to reconcile Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics and produce a “Theory of Everything.”

He wrote an international best seller, “A Brief History of Time” (1988), which delved into the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. He deliberately set out to write a mass-market primer on an often incomprehensible subject.
Although the book was sometimes derided as being dense, and had a reputation for being owned more than read, it sold millions of copies, was translated into more than 20 languages, and inspired a mini-empire of similar books from Dr. Hawking, including “The Universe in a Nutshell” and “A Briefer History of Time.”
With his daughter, Lucy, he wrote a series of children’s books about a young intergalactic traveler named George. His blunt 2013 memoir, “My Brief History,” explored his development in science as well as his turbulent marriages. In addition, Dr. Hawking was the subject of a 1991 documentary, “A Brief History of Time,” directed by Errol Morris, and countless newspaper and magazine articles.
With the aid of a voice synthesizer, controlled by his fingers on a keyboard, he gave speeches around the world, from Chile to China. He played himself on such TV programs as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons,” the latter featuring Dr. Hawking telling the show’s lazy animated patriarch, “Your theory of a doughnut-shaped universe is interesting, Homer. I may have to steal it.”

He insisted that his reputation as the second coming of Albert Einstein had gotten out of control through “media hype.”
“I fit the part of a disabled genius,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “At least, I’m disabled — even though I’m not a genius like Einstein. … The public wants heroes. They made Einstein a hero, and now they’re making me a hero, though with much less justification.”

7 Fascinating Facts About Stephen Hawking

The Mediocre Student

Hawking didn’t have the sort of sparkling early academic career you’d expect from a Grade-A genius. He claims he didn’t learn to properly read until he was 8 years old, and his grades never surpassed the average scores of his classmates at St. Albans School. Of course, there was a reason those same classmates nicknamed him “Einstein”; Hawking built a computer with friends as a teenager, and demonstrated a tremendous capacity for grasping issues of space and time. He also got it together when it counted, dominating his Oxford entrance exams to score a scholarship to study physics at age 17.

The Diagnosis

After falling while ice skating during his first year as a grad student at Cambridge University, Hawking was told he he had the degenerative motor neuron disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and had only 2 1/2 years to live. Obviously that prognosis was light years off, but it seems early onset of the disease was a blessing in disguise, of sorts. Most ALS patients are diagnosed in their mid-50s and live another two to five years, but those diagnosed earlier tend to have a slower-progressing form of the disease. Furthermore, the loss of motor skills forced the burgeoning cosmologist to become more creative. “By losing the finer dexterity of my hands, I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind and try to visualize the ways in which it worked,” he later noted.

The Equation

While it’s impossible to sum up Hawking’s life in one word, it can be done with one equation:

This formula, which involves the speed of light (c), Newton’s constant (G) and other symbols that make the non-mathematically inclined run for cover, measures emissions from black holes that today is known as Hawking radiation. Hawking was initially puzzled by these findings, as he believed black holes to be celestial death traps that swallowed up all energy. However, he determined there was room for this phenomenon through the merging of quantum theory, general relativity and thermodynamics, distilling it all into one (relatively) simple but elegant formula in 1974. Already known for establishing important ground rules about the properties of black holes, this discovery kicked his career into a higher gear and set him on the path to stardom. Hawking has since said he would like this equation to be carved on his tombstone.

The Operation

Although the doomsday predictions of his early doctors were off, Hawking did almost die after contracting pneumonia while traveling to Geneva in 1985. While he was unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, the option of removing the fragile scientist from life support was being considered until his then-wife, Jane, rejected the idea. Hawking instead underwent a tracheotomy, an operation that helped him breathe but permanently took away his ability to speak, prompting the creation of his famous speech synthesizer.

The Machine

Hawking’s original synthesizer was created by a California-based company called Words Plus, which ran a speech program called Equalizer on an Apple II computer. Adapted to a portable system that could be mounted on a wheelchair, the program enabled Hawking to “speak” by using a hand clicker to choose words on a screen. No longer able to use his hands, Hawking now has an infrared switch mounted on his glasses that generates words by detecting cheek movement. He also recently had the communication technology overhauled by Intel, though he insisted on retaining the same robotic voice with its distinctly non-British accent he’s been using for nearly three decades, as he considers it an indelible part of his identity.

The Author

Hawking long believed he could write a book about the mysteries of the universe that would connect with the public, a task that seemed all but impossible after he lost the abilities to write and speak. However, he painstakingly pressed forward with his speech synthesizer, receiving valuable assistance from students who relayed draft revisions with his editor in the U.S. via speakerphone. Hawking’s vision ultimately was realized, as A Brief History of Time landed on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks after its publication in 1988. It also apparently convinced him that writing a book was no more difficult than breezing through the Sunday funnies, as he went on to pen his biography, several other books about his field and a series of science-themed novels, co-written with his daughter, Lucy.

      The Ham

Despite his extraordinary physical challenges, Hawking hasn’t been shy about appearing on television. He first appeared as himself on a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, cracking jokes while playing poker with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. He also lent his voice to the animated shows The Simpsons and Futurama, and, fittingly, has surfaced on the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Of course, screen time hasn’t only been about laughs for the world-renowned physicist, who returned to his bread-and-butter topics of cosmology and the origins of life for his six-part 1997 miniseries Stephen Hawking’s Universe. He also provided plenty of stark, sobering descriptions of his life for the 2013 documentary Hawking.

Peter Hutton , International Desk

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