Hawking unraveled the mysteries of the Big Bang and black holes despite a paralyzing nerve disease, while writing books that made him a celebrity.
Stephen Hawking, who surmounted a paralyzing illness to master both cosmology and celebrity, died Wednesday at age 76.
Hawking was arguably the world’s most famous scientist, owing his scientific acclaim to theoretical work released in the early 1970s that explained how black holes end and how the universe began. His fame went mainstream in 1988 when he published A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that made a star of a wheelchair-bound, robot-voiced physicist who explored the greatest of cosmic mysteries.
“My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way,”
Hawking wrote in a 1984 essay, saying that illness gave him the time to think through physics problems, rather than lecture or perform administrative duties.
Despite his use of a wheelchair owing to a motor neuron disease developed in the early 1960s, Hawking famously ascended in 1977 to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., a position once held by Isaac Newton.
Together with physicist Roger Penrose, Hawking’s work cemented the case for a fiery Big Bang starting the universe.
Hawking also showed that black holes, collapsed stars so dense that even light can’t escape their gravitational attraction, aren’t really black. Energy radiates away from black holes (this is called “Hawking radiation” today) in tiny amounts explained by the equations of quantum mechanics, the rules governing the behavior of subatomic particles.
In this way, Hawking opened a door for physicists seeking to unite the laws governing gravity with those explaining atomic forces — the still uncompleted goal of 21st-century physics.
“He thinks about the universe differently, due to his physical disability,” Kip Thorne, a physicist at Caltech, said of Hawking in 2013. “That enabled him to make discoveries that no one else could make. And he has. They have shaken the foundations of physics.”
Over the decades since the publication of Brief History and his many subsequent books, Hawking’s fame only increased, earning him appearances on TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons. In 2015, actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which explored the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, in revealing fashion.