Few stories around the world of people who find great success in their field despite being significantly crippled by their own physical condition resonate more with the public imagination than that of Stephen Hawking. The British scientist made great strides in theoretical physics, despite being reduced to near-immobility by a rare disease that left him in a wheelchair, dependent on computing software to speak for him. But these setbacks not only failed to dampen his achievements, it immortalized him in this popular image of a disabled scientist. That last line now has a melancholy undertone, considering Hawking has just passed.
TIME reports that Stephen Hawking, arguably considered as the heir to legendary scientist Albert Einstein himself by the general scientific community, has died at his Cambridge home at the age of 76. He was credited as a pioneer scientist in writing a book about his research that was accessible reading to the common reader, his 1988 best-seller “A Brief History of Time”. His passing was a final coda to his lifelong struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disorder that manifested in his 20s, gradually eroding his mobility and speech, though at a much slower rate than initially estimated.
In an official statement by the Hawking Family, Stephen’s children Lucy, Robert and Tim described him as both great scientist and extraordinary man with a lasting legacy in his body of theoretical work. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world,” the statement read. “He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”
Doctors have been astounded when Hawking had managed to live with ALS, normally bringing about death in most other patients within two years, for over five decades more. In Cambridge University in the UK, he served in Sir Isaac Newton’s old post as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, researching a theory that could unify Einstein’s General Relativity Theory with Quantum Physics. His distinctive synthesized “voice”, generated by computer after losing his ability to speak, made him a hit a scientific lectures and a pop culture icon, with appearances as himself in shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (as a hologram) and “The Simpsons”. Many of his colleagues would claim that his extraordinary circumstances helped greatly in increasing public interest and enthusiasm for even advanced sciences.
Stephen Hawking has earned multiple accolades from scientific organizations and governments for his lifelong dedication to research despite the personal, physical toll. By the time of his death, Hawking was reduced to operating his voice synthesizing computer using his right cheek muscle, one of the last he could still move.
Photo courtesy of thewrap.com