Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose work on black holes and cosmology vastly expanded and complicated our understanding of the universe, died at his home in Cambridge, England early Wednesday, the New York Times reports. He was 76.
Hawking was perhaps the most famous living scientist, known as much for his work bringing complicated ideas about the universe to laypeople as for his breakthroughs in physics. His 1988 book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes offered a breezy, conversational overview of the current state of the field, covering topics as specific as “The Uncertainty Principle” (chapter four) and as broad as “The Origin and Fate of the Universe” (chapter eight). Hawking gave his own biggest discovery—that black holes can emit radiation—a grand total of fourteen pages, in a chapter entitled “Black Holes Ain’t So Black,” which seems modest to the point of being glib—but then the 1974 paper in which Hawking announced his findings was titled “Black Hole Explosions?”, question mark very much included, so not really out of character. A Brief History of Time became a best-seller, made Hawking a household name, and introduced the search for a grand unified theory into the popular imagination.
It also introduced Hawking himself. Diagnosed in 1963 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he was only given a few years to live. But the disease progressed unusually slowly, and as Hawking’s body failed, technology advanced in ways that allowed him to continue his work. By the time he lost his voice in 1985, computers had gotten small enough that Hawking was able to mount a speech synthesizer to his motorized wheelchair, communicating by selecting letters and words from a menu system. Errol Morris’ 1991 film adaptation of A Brief History of Time focused on Hawking’s day-to-day life with ALS nearly as much as his theories about the universe, and the scientist became as well-known for his struggle to overcome his illness as he was for his brilliance. Hawking took full advantage of his celebrity, showing up everywhere from a British Telecom ad (later sampled by Pink Floyd) to a series of guest appearances on The Simpsons to a Comic Relief video just last year. He also weighed in on political issues: in just the past few years he’s spoken out against Brexit, for the NHS, and against greed itself. In 2014, Hawking’s life got the biopic treatment in The Theory of Everything, an adaptation of his first wife Jane Hawking’s memoir that focused on their 30-year marriage. Hawking and Jane separated in 1990; in 1995 he married his onetime nurse Elaine Mason, divorcing her in 2006. He is survived by three children, Robert, Lucy, and Tim, who released the following statement:
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. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. 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.