A great man of hilarious humor, became a popular ambassador for science. And was always careful to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work.
Stephen Hawking – who died aged 76 – battled motor neurone disease to become one of the most respected and best-known scientists of his age.
His book A Brief History of Time became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it.
He appeared in a number of popular TV shows and lent his synthesised voice to various recordings.
Stephen William Hawking was born in Oxford on 8 January 1942. His father, a research biologist, had moved with his mother from London to escape German bombing.
Hawking grew up in London and St Albans and, after gaining a first-class degree in physics from Oxford, went on to Cambridge for postgraduate research in cosmology.
As a teenager, he had enjoyed horse-riding and rowing but while at Cambridge he was diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease which was to leave him almost completely paralysed.
As he was preparing to marry his first wife, Jane, in 1964 his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life.
But the disease progressed more slowly than expected. The couple had three children, and in 1988 – although Hawking was by now only able to speak with a voice synthesiser following a tracheotomy – he had completed A Brief History of Time – a layman’s guide to cosmology.
It sold more than 10 million copies, although its author was aware that it was dubbed “the most popular book never read”.
Hawking discovered the phenomenon which became known as Hawking radiation, where black holes leak energy and fade to nothing. He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment.
But it was perhaps his “theory of everything”, suggesting that the universe evolves according to well-defined laws, that attracted most attention.
“This complete set of laws can give us the answers to questions like how did the universe begin,” he said. “Where is it going and will it have an end? If so, how will it end? If we find the answers to these
questions, we really shall know the mind of God.”
Hawking’s celebrity status was acknowledged even by The Simpsons – he was depicted drinking at a bar with Homer, suggesting he might steal Homer’s idea that the universe is shaped like a doughnut.
He also appeared as himself in an episode of the BBC comedy series, Red Dwarf and as a hologram of his image in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The rock group Pink Floyd used his distinctive synthesised voice for the introduction to Keep Talking, on their 1994 album The Division Bell.
I remember the first time I heard that Pink Floyd might work with Hawking. And then I heard the album. It was a way to bring science to music and my friends.
Undeterred by his condition, he continued his work as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, and in 2001, his second book – Universe in a Nutshell – was published.
He believed his illness brought some benefits; he said before he developed the disease he had been bored with life.
But his condition inevitably made him dependent on others. He often paid tribute to his wife, who had looked after him for more than 20 years, and friends and relatives were shocked when he left her for one of his nurses, whom he married in 1995.
By 2000, Hawking was a frequent visitor to the emergency department of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, seeking treatment for a variety of injuries. Police questioned several people about allegations that he had been subjected to verbal and physical abuse over a period of years.
God Bless you and your family and hope we can continue listening and keep talking.