“I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit,” Stephen Hawking had said in 2007 after he took part in a zero-gravity flight that flies a roller-coaster trajectory to produce fleeting periods of weightlessness at the age of 65, though his body was paralyzed by disease.
At 21, in 1963, one of the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicists learned that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an unspecified incurable disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was given only a few years of life. The deadly disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements but left his mental faculties untouched. But Hawking had different plans altogether as he went ahead to discover black holes. With fellow physicist Roger Penrose, Hawking merged Einstein's theory of relativity with quantum theory to suggest that space and time would begin with the Big Bang and end in black holes.
On Wednesday, a cosmologist, an astronomer, a mathematician and the author of numerous books, apart from being the World’s greatest living scientist, Hawking passed away in Cambridge. Here is how the world mourned his death and celebrated the man’s contributions:
A man of great humour, he became a popular ambassador for science and was always careful to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work. His book A Brief History of Time became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it. He appeared in a number of popular TV shows and lent his synthesised voice to various recordings.
Hawking discovered the phenomenon which became known as Hawking radiation, where black holes leak energy and fade to nothing. He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment. But it was perhaps his "theory of everything", suggesting that the universe evolves according to well-defined laws, that attracted most attention.
Los Angeles Times
Stephen Hawking, the British physicist whose body was chained to a wheelchair by the ravages of a degenerative neuromuscular disease, but whose mind soared to the boundaries of the universe and beyond.
Hawking, whose contributions to theoretical physics are frequently compared to those of Albert Einstein, was the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, occupying the same seat once held by Sir Isaac Newton. From that venerated position, he changed the way the universe is viewed by physicists and laymen alike — the former through his seminal theories about the nature of black holes and the origin of the universe, the latter with a bestselling book, "A Brief History of Time," which fulfilled his ambition by appearing on the shelves of airport newsstands throughout the world.
By his own admission, Hawking had "an attitude of complete boredom and a feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for." He was the prototypical gentleman student, partying frequently, serving as coxswain of the second-string crew and studying for only about an hour a day. Nonetheless, he graduated with "first class honors" — the highest — when he gave an impressive performance on an oral exam at the conclusion of his studies.
Hawking never dwelled on the "what ifs" — never questioning what he might have accomplished had he not been disabled:
"I doubt that it would have been much different. I have done most of the things that I wanted to do. Anyway, there is no good thinking about what might have been. I might as well wonder what I might have done if I had not been good at physics."
Stephen Hawking was one of the world's most acclaimed scientists, a medical miracle and probably the galaxy's most unlikely celebrity.
He embraced popular culture with enthusiasm and humour, appearing in TV cartoon The Simpsons, starring in Star Trek and providing the voice-over for a British Telecom commercial that was later sampled on rock band Pink Floyd's The Division Bell album. His rise to fame and relationship with his first wife, Jane, was dramatised in a 2014 film, The Theory Of Everything, in which Eddie Redmayne put in an Oscar-winning performance as the physicist battling with a devastating illness.
The best-known theoretical physicist of his time, Hawking wrote so lucidly of the mysteries of space, time and black holes that his book, “A Brief History of Time,” became an international best seller, making him one of science’s biggest celebrities since Albert Einstein.
As one of Isaac Newton’s successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a “unified theory.” Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects like planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.
For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest — he said finding a “theory of everything” would allow mankind to “know the mind of God.”
The image of Stephen Hawking – who has died aged 76 – in his motorised wheelchair, with head contorted slightly to one side and hands crossed over to work the controls, caught the public imagination, as a true symbol of the triumph of mind over matter. As with the Delphic oracle of ancient Greece, physical impairment seemed compensated by almost supernatural gifts, which allowed his mind to roam the universe freely, upon occasion enigmatically revealing some of its secrets hidden from ordinary mortal view.
Those who knew Hawking would clearly appreciate the dominating presence of a real human being, with an enormous zest for life, great humour, and tremendous determination, yet with normal human weaknesses, as well as his more obvious strengths. It seems clear that he took great delight in his commonly perceived role as “the No 1 celebrity scientist”; huge audiences would attend his public lectures, perhaps not always just for scientific edification.
The New York Times
His own spirit left many in awe.
“What a triumph his life has been,” said Martin Rees, a Cambridge University cosmologist, the astronomer royal of Britain and Dr. Hawking’s longtime colleague. “His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.”
Despite being a British citizen he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US's highest civilian honor, in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
In September 2016 Hawking joined 375 "concerned" scientists in penning an open letter criticizing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, citing the threat of climate change and blasting his push for the US to leave the Paris Accord.
Fellow scientists hailed Hawking for his work and influence in the field.