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Stephen Hawking: Renowned physicist dies at 76

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Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s best-known physicists and the author of a A Brief History of Time has died at the age of 76, a family spokesman confirmed Tuesday night.

Stephen Hawking.jpg

Image: Stephen Hawking

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” read a statement from Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, according to the Guardian. “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 humor 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 for ever.”

Everyone knew of Stephen Hawking’s cosmic brilliance, but few could comprehend it. Not even top-notch astronomers. In some ways, Hawking was the inheritor of Albert Einstein’s mantle of the genius-as-celebrity.

“His contribution is to engage the public in a way that maybe hasn’t happened since Einstein,” said prominent astronomer Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories. “He’s become an icon for a mind that is beyond ordinary mortals… People don’t exactly understand what he’s saying, but they know he’s brilliant. There’s perhaps a human element of his struggle that makes people stop and pay attention.”

With Einstein, most people are familiar with e=mc2, but they don’t know what it means. With Hawking, his work was too complicated for most people, but they understood that what he was trying to figure out was basic, even primal.

“He was asking and trying to address the very biggest questions we were trying to ask: the birth of the universe, black holes, the direction of time,” said University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner. “I think that caught people’s attention.”

And he did so in an impish way, showing humanity despite being confined to a wheelchair with ALS, the degenerative nerve disorder known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Hawking flew in a zero-gravity plane. He made public bets with other scientists about the existence of black holes and radiation that emanates from them — losing both bets and buying a subscription to Penthouse for one scientist and a baseball encyclopedia for the other.

And he did so in an impish way, showing humanity despite being confined to a wheelchair with ALS, the degenerative nerve disorder known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He flew in a zero-gravity plane. He made public bets with other scientists about the existence of black holes and radiation that emanates from them — losing both bets and buying a subscription to Penthouse for one scientist and a baseball encyclopedia for the other.

“The first thing that catches you is the debilitating disease and his wheelchair,” Turner said. But then his mind and the “joy that he took in science” dominated. And while the public may not have understood what he said, they got his quest for big ideas, Turner said.

Hawking, who died at his home in Cambridge, England on Wednesday, became the public face of science genius. He appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” voiced himself in “The Simpsons” cartoon series and wrote the best seller “A Brief History of Time.” He sold 9 million copies of that book, though many readers didn’t finish it. It’s been called “the least-read best-seller ever.”

As his physical condition deteriorated, he became paralyzed and had to communicate through a computer-based communication device that became one of the astrophysicists’s most famous characteristics.

In his early 20s, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS. But his form of the neurodegenerative disease was a rare one that progressed slowly as he pursued his PhD in physics at Cambridge University.

Andy Fabian, an astronomer at Hawking’s University of Cambridge and president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said Hawking would start his layman’s lectures on black holes with the joke: “I assume you all have read ‘A Brief History of Time’ and understood it.” It always got a big laugh.

“You’d find the average astronomer such as myself doesn’t even try to follow the more esoteric theories that (Hawking) pursued the last 20 years,” Fabian said. “I’ve been to talks Hawking has given and cannot follow them myself.”

Hawking was born in Oxford, England on January 8, 1942 — the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer and physicist.

Richard Green, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association — the British name for ALS — said Hawking met the classic definition of the disease, as “the perfect mind trapped in an imperfect body.” He said Hawking had been an inspiration to people with the disease for many years.

“I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit,” Hawking said in 2007, shortly after taking a zero gravity ride aboard a special Boeing 727-200.

Lucy Hawking said her father had an exasperating “inability to accept that there is anything he cannot do.”

“I accept that there are some things I can’t do,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “But they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway.”

Hawking was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

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