March 14, 2018 -- Stephen Hawking, a visionary physicist who overcame a debilitating disease, died Wednesday at the age of 76. His family said he died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, England
Hawking was one of the most celebrated scientists of the last half-century. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest award given to civilians by the United States government. Hawking was also highly regarded for his ability to translate complex ideas into language that those untrained in the sciences could understand. His best-selling book A Brief History of Time has sold more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988.
The story of his early life -- and his devastating diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21 -- was immortalized in the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything.
There is no cure for the ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and its causes are not known. It left Hawking mostly paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and speaking mainly through a voice synthesizer. It attacks the neurons that control a person’s voluntary muscles. Over time, those muscles become unable to work, and they waste away. In advanced stages of the disease, patients cannot move at all.
"I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many," Hawking wrote on his website.
"I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope."
Neurologist Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, MD, who directs the ALS Center at the University of California, San Francisco, says Hawking’s case was unusual. Most often, the disease appears when people are over 50. Younger patients like Hawking tend to live longer, she says.
Eventually, the disease causes the diaphragm to fail, making it impossible to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Nearly all patients with ALS die at this stage, which usually happens 3 to 5 years after the first symptoms of the disease appear. However, about 10% of patients survive for a decade or longer.
“Hawking was an outlier,” she says, meaning he far exceeded expectations in terms of his disease.
“It’s just incredibly admirable that he could find a way to accomplish so much despite his disease,” says Lomen-Hoerth. “I’m always quite amazed by my patients and what they do with their lives. What makes Hawking unique is the degree to which he achieved so much in his career.”
Born in 1942, in Oxford, England, Hawking attended University College at Oxford, where he read physics and received his bachelor of arts degree. He earned his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1966, and spent his career there.
In 1979, Hawking was named Lucasian professor of mathematics, the same post held by Sir Isaac Newton more than 300 years earlier. At the time of his death, he was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery director of research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.
Hawking’s major contributions to science include his work on the physics of black holes, regions of space -- or, more accurately, space-time -- that form after the collapse of giant stars. In a black hole, mass is so densely concentrated that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravity. Or so the theory went until Hawking described how energy can radiate from them. That energy is now referred to as Hawking radiation, though not everyone agrees with his theory. Hawking’s own views on black holes would continue to evolve over the course of his life.
In awarding Hawking its 1999 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize, the American Physical Society cited his breakthrough work in black hole physics and his “special gift of making abstract ideas accessible and exciting to experts, generalists, and the public alike."
In 2014, Hawking spoke with two astronauts aboard the International Space Station. He was active on social media and congratulated actor Eddie Redmayne via his Facebook page after he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Hawking had granted the filmmakers the use of his iconic computer-generated voice for the critically acclaimed movie.
"The world has lost a beautiful mind and a brilliant scientist. RIP Stephen Hawking," tweeted Google CEO Sundar Pichai.