Physicist Stephen Hawking dies at 76

Work centered on uniting relativity and quantum theory; disabled author of 'A Brief History of Time' became a cultural icon

AFP-JIJI, AP, Staff Report

Stephen Hawking, Britain’s most famous scientist, who dedicated his life to unlocking the secrets of the universe, has died at age 76.

His children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said in a statement carried by Britain’s Press Association news agency on Wednesday: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

Born on Jan. 8, 1942 — 300 years to the day after the death of the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei — he believed science was his destiny.

But fate also dealt Hawking a cruel hand. Crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which attacks the nerves controlling voluntary movement, he spent most of his life in a wheelchair.

Hawking defied predictions that he would only live for a few years, overcoming the debilitating effects of ALS on his mobility. A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesizer that gave him his distinctive robotic monotone.

“I am quite often asked: how do you feel about having ALS?” he once wrote. “The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.”

Stephen William Hawking, though, was far from normal. Inside the shell of his increasingly useless body was a razor-sharp mind, fascinated by the nature of the universe, how it was formed and how it might end.

“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.”

Much of that work centered on bringing together relativity — the nature of space and time — and quantum theory — how the smallest subatomic particles behave — to explain the creation of the universe and how it is governed.

For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest — he said finding a “theory of everything” would allow mankind to “know the mind of God.”

“A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence,” he wrote in his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.”

In later years, though, he suggested a unified theory might not exist.

Hawking said belief in a God who intervenes in the universe “to make sure the good guys win or get rewarded in the next life” is wishful thinking.

“But one can’t help asking the question: Why does the universe exist?” he said in 1991. “I don’t know an operational way to give the question or the answer, if there is one, a meaning. But it bothers me.”

Hawking first earned prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as “Hawking radiation.”

Gary Horowitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the find helped move scientists one step closer to cracking the unified theory.

Hawking’s other major scientific contribution was to cosmology, the study of the universe’s origin and evolution. Working with Jim Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Hawking proposed in 1983 that space and time might have no beginning and no end. “Asking what happens before the Big Bang is like asking for a point 1 mile north of the North Pole,” he said.

In 2004, he announced that he had revised his previous view that objects sucked into black holes simply disappeared, perhaps to enter an alternate universe. Instead, he said he believed objects could be spit out of black holes in a mangled form.

That new theory capped his three-decade struggle to explain a paradox in scientific thinking: whether objects can really “disappear” without a trace into a black hole, although subatomic theory says matter can be transformed but never fully destroyed.

He became one of the youngest fellows of Britain’s most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society in 1974, at the age of 32.

In 1979, he was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, where he had moved from Oxford University to study theoretical astronomy and cosmology.

A previous holder of the prestigious post was the 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton.

Hawking eventually put Newton’s gravitational theories to the test when, at age 65, he went on a weightless flight in the United States in 2007 as a prelude to a hoped-for suborbital spaceflight.

Characteristically, he did not see the trip as a mere birthday present.

Instead, he said he wanted to show that disability is no bar to achievement and to encourage interest in space, where he believed humankind’s destiny lies.

“I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space,” he said. “I believe life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers.”

More recently he said artificial intelligence could contribute to the eradication of disease and poverty, while warning of its potential dangers. “In short, success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many,” Hawking said in 2016 at the opening of a new AI research center at Cambridge University.

Hawking’s genius brought him global fame, and he become known as a witty communicator dedicated to bringing science to a wider audience.

“A Brief History of Time” sought to explain to nonscientists the fundamental theories of the universe. It became an international best-seller, bringing him global acclaim. 1.1 million copies of the Japanese-language version have been sold in Japan, according to Amazon.

It was followed in 2001 by “The Universe in a Nutshell.”

In 2007, Hawking published a children’s book, “George’s Secret Key to the Universe,” with his daughter, Lucy, seeking to explain the workings of the solar system, asteroids, his pet subject of black holes and other celestial bodies.

Hawking visited Japan several times, including in November 2001, when some 1,500 people came to listen to his speech at the University of Tokyo, with an additional 500 turned away at the door, according to the university.

When he visited Japan in September 1990, he expressed hope during a news conference that Japanese scientists would widen their contributions to the international study of astronomy.

“Scientific research on space should be an effort by all human races to understand the universe we are living in,” he said at the time, according to The Japan Times.

Hawking also moved into popular culture, with cameos in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Simpsons,” while his voice appeared in Pink Floyd songs.

Hawking also weighed into politics, describing Donald Trump as “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator” ahead of his election.

He also warned Britain ahead of the Brexit referendum in 2016 against leaving the European Union: “Gone are the days when we could stand on our own against the world.”

Hawking first married Jane Wilde in 1965 and had three children. The couple split after 25 years, and he married his former nurse, Elaine Mason, but the union broke down amid allegations of abuse by him.

The love story between Hawking and Wilde was retold in the 2014 film “The Theory of Everything,” which won Britain’s Eddie Redmayne the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the scientist.

The Oscar triumph was celebrated by Hawking, who has reportedly said there were moments watching the film when he thought he was watching himself.

He was also the subject of a 2013 documentary, “Hawking,” in which he reflected on his life: “Because every day could be my last, I have the desire to make the most of each and every minute.”