Stephen Hawking was still in his final year at Oxford when he noticed what he first passed off as growing “clumsiness.” But he was soon diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 21. While it’s often thought of as a disease that strikes older people, ALS can afflict people of any age and diagnoses uses presages a rapid decline. He completed his graduate work on crutches. By the time he was appointed a visiting professor at Caltech, he could no longer write, his speech was becoming distorted and he was in a wheelchair. By the time he returned to Cambridge, he was all but completely paralyzed.
And yet … And yet … he completed decades of work in astrophysics, defining for the first time many of the properties and behaviors of black holes. His 1974 work that showed how black holes could emit radiation brought together quantum physics and large scale objects, in a way that both challenged accepted notions, and made Hawking one of the youngest ever Fellows of the Royal Academy. He was sometimes so on the leading edge that he he both published a new theory, then published the paper that disproved it.
He wasn’t always right. He made predictions about how information was treated in a black hole that turned out to he famously wrong. And the crushing difficulty imposed on Hawking and those who knew him was sometimes impossible to bear. His marriage to Jane Wilde, celebrated in the movie The Theory of Everything, ended in 1995. He later married his longtime caregiver Elaine Mason, only to divorce again in 2006. Hawking remained close to Jane and his children Robert, Lucy, and Timothy.
Hawking may be best known as a popularizer of science. His books, like the best-selling A Brief History of Time, brought difficult concepts of relativity and quantum physics within the grasp of millions of readers. The iconic mechanical voice created for him, which has an American accent, amused Hawking. Though he was offered voices that sounded more ‘natural’ or had accents closer to the voice he’d used before ALS robbed him of speaking, he preferred to stick to the original.
And he was an original. An icon of intellect, and above all perseverance against all odds.
Stephen Hawking was 76.