On Wednesday, the family members of Stephen Hawking told British media that Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, died at the age of 76.
Hawking led the revival of public interest in science through his publications and public appearances, both filled with heart and a robust sense of understanding for something deeper than man.
His New York Times bestseller, “A Brief History of Time,” opened the doors to one of the greatest minds of our time. Although many know Hawking as a brilliant scientist, he was far more than that. Hawking was a witty man with a lively sense of humor, a political commentator and social activist, who was bound to an electric wheelchair due to ALS. But in adversity and struggle, Hawking prevailed magnificently and in an extraordinary fashion.
In his youth, Stephen Hawking was not the best student. While he showed signs of interest in academia—as his family held education in high regard—his grades were sup-par. Slowly, however, Hawking developed an interest in mathematics, specifically as they relate to physics and chemistry.
During his early undergraduate years at Oxford University, Hawking was not particularly fond of social interaction, kept to himself and often found himself lonely. Just like his slow inclination towards education, however, he began to make strides in his social life, making friends and a name for himself as a risky type of man; especially in his rowing team.
Hawking began his graduate studies in 1962, at the age of 17 at Cambridge University, his father’s alma mater.
In 1963, during his time in Cambridge, Hawking, then 21, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease that slowly ate away at his basic functions.
Doctors, at the time of his diagnosis, gave him a prognosis of only two more years to live. Devastated, Hawking fell into a depression and seemed to view much of life, especially his studies, as pointless.
The destruction of his physical movements was painstakingly slow, as he began to need crutches for support and started to constantly slur his words. By the early 1970s, while he was extremely reluctant to use a wheelchair, it seemed as though he had no other choice. With the help of his professors and colleagues, he began his work again, while fighting the disease.
His professional career is almost unparalleled. In 1975 and 1976, Hawking received five medals and awards for his work on black hole dynamics, quantum gravity and mechanics, as well as his discovery of the emission of radiation out of black holes, dubbed “Hawking radiation.” In 1978, he was the recipient of the Albert Einstein Medal and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. The following year, he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position of such prestige, that Sir Isaac Newton once held it.
For much of his life, Hawking’s work focused on the relationship between quantum physics, thermodynamics and theory of relativity to create theories of cosmology.
His love and interest for black holes was especially emphasized in his publications and theories. But he was not just vocal about his scientific discoveries. Hawking was constantly described as an outspoken character, a man with vigor and a passion for life. But he was very aware of how ALS made him look in the eyes of society.
It was not until he and his wife had to campaign for accommodations for the disabled in Cambridge, when he began to do activist work concerning the disabled community. In general, he wanted to separate his illness and himself, engaging only when necessary. But this did not stop him from taking up the role as a leader in the fight for the disabled.
Hawking leaned left in his political views, associating himself with the Labour Party in the U.K, a left leaning political party. He opposed Brexit and once called Donald Trump, according to UK’s Independent, “a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
He opposed the Iraq War and nuclear weapons, calling them, BBC News reports, “the greatest danger to the survival of the human race.” His humanitarian contributions are just as extensive as his scientific ones. He contributed to fighting against AIDS/HIV, homelessness, poverty and supported disaster relief organizations and human rights.
Hawking spent his last days fighting budget cuts to the U.K.’s National Health Service, the government apparatus that helped him following his diagnosis of ALS.
While Hawking was always cautious—especially in the early years following his diagnosis—in being a vocal advocate for the disabled community but when the time came, he stepped up in his last days with pride.
In the preface to the World Health Organization’s first World Report on Disability in 2011, Hawking wrote with passion, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”
In 2014, he addressed UNESCO’s International Conference, speaking on communication technology and empowerment of people with disabilities.
“Because I have had such phenomenal technological support, I feel a responsibility to speak for others who have not. I have not been lucky to contract ALS, but I have been lucky to have this help. I want to use my high profile to raise awareness of issues around disability and communication. Recently, my communication system broke down for three days, and I was shocked by how powerless I felt… My hope is that the kinds of technologies I have trialed and helped develop will become easily and cheaply available to all who need them. We need to make sure this technology becomes available to those who need it so that no one lives in silence. Please listen to me,” Hawking said, “I speak for the people you can’t hear.”
His high profile, along with his character landed him in interesting places. Hawking appeared on “The Simpsons,” “Futurama” and “Star Trek.” In one dialogue his character was having with Homer from the Simpsons, Hawking exhibited his hilarity: “Your theory of a doughnut-shaped universe is intriguing, Homer. I may have to steal it.” He has been portrayed in multiple films, including the biographical movie, “The Theory of Everything,” played by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Academy Award for his role.
Hawking was a man of intellect, of compassion and spirit. He enjoyed the small things in life as well as the big expanding universe. His brilliance and love, in combination with his sense of humor, made him an unforgettable legend.
In his own words, a message Hawking wished to impart to the world was: “So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”