British physicist Stephen W. Hawking, whose theory of black holes altered the course of modern scientific thought, and whose ability to convey abstract concepts of quantum physics to a mass audience made him a popular cultural figure, has died today at the age of 76 in his home at Cambridge.
His age at his death was one of the many marvels of a life full of them. Diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at age 21, Hawking was told that he would live no more than three years. Hawking defied his doctors’ predictions by adding over 51 years to his predicted lifespan.
During this time, Hawking not only made new discoveries in his field, but also exposed these ideas to an audience far beyond academic circles. He did so while disease continued to debilitate his body.
Like no scientist since Albert Einstein, Hawking came to represent the scientific community to the world at large. His achievements became inextricable from the image he presented: That of a brilliant mind unwilling to be fettered by a frail body. Wheelchair-bound and unable to speak with his mouth, Hawking was able to use technology to communicate his ideas to the world. These ideas were some of the most well regarded scientific hypotheses of the late 20th century.
Early Education and Diagnosis
Born to educated parents in 1942 (his mother and father had both attended Oxford), Stephen William Hawking showed an early aptitude for math and science. He had an active imagination, and he loved to play board games of his own invention and speculate about the stars. Although his father, a medical researcher, would have preferred that he pursue medicine, it was clear that Stephen was more interested in bodies of the heavenly sort.
At 17, he entered the alma mater of his parents, where by all accounts he was not a model student. However, without much effort, he graduated with honors in his chosen subject of natural science and continued on to Cambridge, where he would earn his doctorate in cosmology.
It was at Cambridge where Hawking met his first wife, Jane Wilde, who would go on to write two memoirs chronicling their life together, and also where the disease that would afflict him for the rest of his life began to take serious hold of his body. By the time he earned his doctorate in 1966, he had difficulty walking; by 1969, he was wheelchair-bound and found everyday tasks more and more difficult to perform.
Although Hawking’s disease progressed rapidly and harshly, it ironically had a positive effect on his work. Despite his brilliant mind, Hawking had been a largely indifferent student for much of his academic career; once diagnosed, he pursued his studies with new seriousness. Deeply interested in how the universe began, as well as new theories about the nature of black holes (which are not really holes at all, but dense clusters of dead star matter with strong gravitational pull), Hawking began to pick apart accepted notions of black hole behavior.
His book The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, published in 1973 in cooperation with fellow scientist George Ellis, took Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as its basis and developed theories about the nature of black holes (including the emission of particles later dubbed “Hawking radiation”), the expansion of the universe, and the relationship between space and time. A difficult work of theoretical quantum physics, it was hailed as a game-changer in the scientific community.
Not yet 33, Hawking was named a fellow of the Royal Society (England’s most learned body). By the late 70s, he held the chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position founded in 1663 and only held by 16 men before him (including Isaac Newton). Many other honors followed as Hawking continued his work as a teacher and researcher, even as his disease made every effort more challenging.
Persevering with Technology
By the late 70s, Hawking required constant care. His speech had become hard to understand, his muscles atrophied to the point where even feeding himself and writing became impossible. Hawking feared being imprisoned in a body that he could no longer use to communicate his ideas and needs. A bout of pneumonia and resulting tracheotomy in 1985 made his condition even worse, and Hawking lost his voice entirely.
Computer technology had been addressing the issues of helping the disabled to speak and function for a number of years, and Hawking immediately began to learn the slow system of choosing his letters and words from an on-screen menu. At first he was able to use his fingers to click, but eventually he would be forced to use a sensor attached to his cheek muscle. Speech technology software gave Hawking a speaking voice, a robotic sound that became so closely identified with him that he chose to continue using it even when other voice sounds became possible.
Hawking continued to write and publish prolifically through the ’70s and ’80s, determined to continue his work despite the setbacks of learning new systems of communication. In 1988, he produced A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, a simplified summary of his basic theories tailored for a wide readership. The short book unexpectedly shot to the top of the best seller’s list, where it stayed for several years. Disseminating hard science to a popular audience would become one of Hawking’s chief projects in the second half of his life. Books such as Black Holes and Baby Universes (1994), The Universe in a Nutshell (2001) and A Briefer History of Time (2005) all aimed to convey ideas born of high mathematics and complicated theory to non-scientists interested in fundamental questions about the origin of the universe and humankind’s place within it.
Unfortunately, as Hawking’s career expanded outward like the universe he wrote about, his home life contracted. According to her memoirs, his wife Jane found coping with Hawking’s care, his newfound celebrity, and his disdain for her religious beliefs ever harder to manage. Hawking, meanwhile, grew resentful of his wife and married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, after his divorce from Jane was final. Hawking’s re-marriage would not have the longevity of the first, however, and he divorced his second wife in 2006. Hawking would later re-establish contact with his first wife and family and maintained good relations with them until his death.
In his later years, while dodging the occasional health scare, Hawking continued to study and write about the issues that interested him most about the origins of the universe. He also courted the celebrity that his populist books had inspired and made various forays into pop culture, including appearances on television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Big Bang Theory, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Filmmakers found his story interesting, and several films were made about him, including the documentaries A Brief History of Time (1991) and Hawking (2013) and the biographical films Hawking (2004) and The Theory of Everything (2014). Hawking himself looked back at his life in the book My Brief History in 2013, a short autobiography written with typical directness and lack of sentiment. “Fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life,” he concluded.
Hawking was hopeful that he would get to travel in space before the end of his life. This was not to come to pass. Even though he never got into space himself, one might say that he brought space to the Earth through his writing. Few scientists dream ideas as big as Hawking’s, and fewer still make any attempt to share those ideas with the rest of the world. Hawking achieved both of these things, his mind untethered by a slumped, immobile body and a face that lacked expression.
In the end, Hawking was no more able to escape the progress of time than anyone else; he had defied it for so long and with such profound result, however, that it seemed as if time had stretched to make room for him. Although that window has now closed, the ideas that he left behind are likely to resonate for a long time to come. The number of people who could be said to have changed the world’s thinking are few; Hawking was one of them, and like Galileo, who shared his birth date, his name will live on not just in the scientific community, but within the larger history of our world.