Stephen Hawking: a visionary astrophysicist with 'a beautiful mind'
The author of the unlikely best-seller A Brief History of Time died peacefully at home in Cambridge
A thousand years from now, scientists will still be discussing the work of Stephen Hawking, the British astrophysicist who changed the way humanity views the universe.
The Cambridge professor was a man of mind-boggling achievements - far more than just a dusty scientist who studied the universe.
British physicist and Professor Brian Cox called him "one of the greats" saying physicists in 1,000 years' time "will still be talking about Hawking radiation", his theory about black holes.
Professor Hawking, 76, died peacefully at home in Cambridge, his family said on Wednesday, leaving behind a generation of young scientists inspired the depth and breathe of his achievements.
He was lauded for his book A Brief History of Time – an unusual addition to the best-seller lists – and was the first to set out a theory of cosmology as a union of relativity and quantum mechanics.
As a young graduate student in the 1960s, he showed that Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity broke down completely at the birth of the universe. He went on to discover hidden links between gravity, quantum theory – the rules of the sub-atomic world – and thermodynamics, originally devised to understand steam engines.
In the process, Hawking showed that black holes - bizarre objects whose intense gravity was supposed to trap everything within them - can actually emit heat.
Born in Oxford, England in 1942, Hawking read physics at Oxford University – to the dismay of his father, who wanted him to study medicine. He bored easily, however, and told examiners that if they awarded him a first, he would go to the University of Cambridge. Hawking was working a PhD on cosmology in Cambridge when doctors diagnosed him with motor neurone disease and gave him two years to live. Hawking then set to work on a PhD exposing the limits of Einstein's theory of gravity.
Later in his career, Professor Hawking predicted the end of humanity from global warming, a new virus or a large comet, and believed it was rational to assume there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
The scientist’s personal life was as complex as his scientific work. He met his first wife, Jane Wilde, in 1963 before he was diagnosed with a paralysing disease that would confine him to a wheelchair. They had three children and divorced. He began a relationship with his nurse, Elaine Mason, who he married in 1995 and also divorced in 2006 amid abuse allegations Professor Hawking denied.
Professor Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, called him an extraordinary man whose courage, persistence, brilliance and humour inspired people around 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,” his children said in a statement.
His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularisation of science and mathematics left an indelible legacy, University of Cambridge vice chancellor Stephen Toope said: “His character was an inspiration to millions.”
The film The Theory of Everything, released in 2014, illustrated the tension in Professor Hawking’s private and professional lives and garnered a best actor Academy Award for star Eddie Redmayne.
Mr Redmayne was among those paying tribute to Professor Hawking on Wednesday, calling him “a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”
Major Timothy Nigel Peake, a British Army Air Corps officer and European Space Agency astronaut, said he inspired generations “to look beyond our own blue planet” and expand the understanding of the universe.
"A star just went out in the cosmos," Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist and theoretical physicist, tweeted. "We have lost an amazing human being."
Updated: March 14, 2018 07:35 PM