Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76, and scientists around the world are paying tribute to his legacy — not just as a mathematician and astrophysicist, but as a public educator, an inspiration to millions, and a human being with a sharp sense of humor.
“What a triumph his life has been,” Martin Rees, a cosmologist at Cambridge University and a longtime colleague of Hawking’s, told The New York Times. “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.”
British astronaut Tim Peake said Hawking had “inspired generations to look beyond our own blue planet and expand our understanding of the universe,” while Neil deGrasse Tyson said Hawking’s passing had “left an intellectual vacuum in his wake.” Professor James Hartle, who worked with Hawking on theoretical descriptions of the conditions at the beginning of the universe, praised the physicist for his ability to “see through the clutter” of science.
Hawking began his career studying mathematics at Oxford University. He then moved to Cambridge University to pursue cosmology (the only discipline, he claimed, that could keep his interest). In 1963, when Hawking was 21, he was diagnosed with the motor neurone disease ALS. His doctors initially told him he had two years to live. His death this week means he outlasted this initial prognosis by more than half a century.
His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 14, 2018
“Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before,” said Hawking of his diagnosis. From the 1960s onwards, he said his goal in academics was simple: “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
Although it is the public image of Hawking — sitting in a motorized wheelchair, communicating through a synthesized voice while his mind roamed the Universe — that caught the imagination, his close friends remember a more human side.
“Those who knew Hawking would clearly appreciate the dominating presence of a real human being, with an enormous zest for life, great humor, and tremendous determination, yet with normal human weaknesses, as well as his more obvious strengths,” writes Roger Penrose, who worked with Hawking on his first major breakthrough; theorems explaining how the Universe might have begun with a singularity.
Remembering Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist and ambassador of science. His theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring. May you keep flying like superman in microgravity, as you said to astronauts on @Space_Station in 2014 pic.twitter.com/FeR4fd2zZ5— NASA (@NASA) March 14, 2018
Penrose, who wrote Hawking’s obituary for The Guardian, said that as his disease progressed, “he almost always remained positive about life.” “He enjoyed his work, the company of other scientists, the arts, the fruits of his fame, his travels. [...] He could be generous and was very often witty. On occasion he could display something of the arrogance that is not uncommon among physicists working at the cutting edge, and he had an autocratic streak. Yet he could also show a true humility that is the mark of greatness.”
Hawking is also remembered for his “wicked sense of humor.” Marika Taylor, a former student of Hawking’s, told The Guardian of one incident when he announced he had changed his mind on a problem known as the black hole information paradox. Taylor says Hawking was discussing the problem in a pub, and dialed up the volume on his speech synthesizer to announce: “I’m coming out!” The whole pub turned around to look, before Hawking lowered down the volume and clarified to his students: “I’m coming out and admitting that maybe information loss doesn’t occur.”
This anecdote highlights one of Hawking’s better known quotations (popularized in a TV advert); his exhortation that we keep talking to one another. Doing so would help us exchange ideas, but also understand one another. Despite the loss of his own voice, Hawking never deviated from this ideal:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”