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News: Star Scientist Stephen Hawking Passes at 76

News: Star Scientist Stephen Hawking Passes at 76

The theoretical physicist, who had ALS, expanded our understanding of the universe.

Even in a world of incredible, seemingly constant scientific and technological achievement, few actual scientists become household names. Stephen Hawking was one of them. The theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time died in Cambridge, England, on March 14, 2018. Hawking lived with a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and was said to be in declining health in recent years. He was 76.

"His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake," tweeted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of Hawking's death. "But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure."

Hawking's accomplishments
While his discoveries spanned a universe, Hawking was perhaps most famous for expanding our understanding of black holes. Scientists used to believe their gravitational pull was inescapable. Hawking showed, theoretically speaking, that some particles were able to get away; this idea came to be known as Hawking radiation.

Along with mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, Hawking also suggested that the Big Bang—the explosion creating the cosmos—began from a tiny, individual point, called a singularity. Eventually, he believed, black holes would be the end of time and space.

In addition to his discoveries, Hawking served as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University from 1979 to 2009. He received several high-profile awards for his work, including the Copley Medal, the Wolf Foundation Prize, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Known for his sense of humor, Hawking also appeared on several popular television shows, including multiple guest spots on The Simpsons, which he called "the best thing on American television."

Hawking and ALS
Frequently referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a degenerative illness that eventually kills nerve cells, leading to paralysis and death; about 30,000 Americans are thought to be affected. No cure currently exists.

When Hawking was first diagnosed with ALS in 1963, he was given just two years to live. However, his form of the disease progressed very slowly, allowing him to surpass his predicted life expectancy by more than 50 years.

Over time, though, he lost most of his bodily function, and following a tracheotomy in 1985, his ability to speak. This led to Hawking's use of a computerized speech-generating device, which allowed him to communicate with others and even lead lectures in the decades following. He remained a popular speaker throughout his career, frequently attracting packed audiences.

Though Hawking's condition may have placed limitations on his physical being, he didn't allow it to dampen his scientific curiosity. “My goal is simple," he once said. "It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” 

Some believe Hawking's ALS even contributed to his scientific accomplishments. Kip Thorne, a California physicist who often worked with Hawking, told NPR: "It was because of this handicap that he developed new ways of thinking—new ways of wrapping his brain around things that enabled him to out-think anybody else in the field."

Hawking is survived by his three children, Lucy, Robert and Timothy, and three grandchildren.

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