Stephen Hawking—one of the most influential physicists to ever live—died peacefully today (March 14) at his home in Cambridge. He was 76.
Hawking was born in Oxford, 300 years to the day after revolutionary physicist Sir Isaac Newton. It’s an anecdote Hawking used to open several texts by him and about him, and it is an illustration of one of the many strange, cosmic coincidences that defined his life and studies. He experienced misfortunes and ill health defied by spirit and genius. In his time, he redefined what we know about the relationship between gravity and time as well as the origins of our reality.
Born in 1942, Hawking breezed through his studies. He enjoyed camaraderie with other budding physicists, but he often was uncompelled by what had already been proven and responded only to theoretical science. When he was 21, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare neurological disease. Doctors gave him around two years to live. Slowly but surely, he lost his ability to speak and walk, but to the benefit of the universe, he had a lot of fight.
While bound to a wheelchair, he engaged in an intellectual duel with Israeli scientist Jacob Bekenstein, which led to Hawking’s most groundbreaking research showing that black holes emit radiation. At the time, scientists believed that black holes were stoic, doom pockets across the sky. If energy radiates from black holes, Hawking concluded, then this could not be true. These destroyers are, in fact, creators. The phenomenon was named Hawking radiation.
The Big Bang Theory—which explains how the universe originated from one point of singularity and then expanded—predates Hawking, but he was part of a generation of scientists who ultimately defined it. Hawking popularized these ideas in “A Brief History of Time,” one of the most influential and successful texts about physics, published in 1988. By this time, he had lost most of the functions of his body, including the ability to speak after a fight with pneumonia in 1985. Intel developed Speech Plus, tools attached to his wheelchair that would give him a synthesized ability to speak. It became something of a signature that made Hawking a public figure.
Stephen Hawking was the subject of an Errol Morris documentary and an Oscar-winning drama The Theory of Everything. He never lost his sense of humor either. To prove the existence of time travelers, he once threw a party for them and only sent out invitations after the fact. Because no one showed up, Hawking concluded time travelers do not exist. And in his final years, Hawking said that while we might want to take caution against artificial intelligence, we should be much more concerned about capitalism first.