Stephen Hawking, 1942–2018

Stephen Hawking, renowned physicist, famed science communicator, and all-around inspiration, has passed away at the age of 76.

Stephen Hawking speaks to a crowd at Northeastern University in 1991.
S&T: Kelly Beatty

Professor Stephen William Hawking passed away on the morning of March 14, 2018, in the comfort of his home in Cambridge, UK. He was 76.

The physicist-become-international-icon spent decades defying expectations after his 1963 diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He lived a remarkably full life, with a brilliant career in physics and science communication, and is survived by three children, Robert, Lucy, and Timothy, and three grandchildren.

Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. Though he exhibited natural intelligence (his schoolfriends nicknamed him “Einstein”), he didn’t apply himself in his early years, generally ranking at the lower end of his classes. But science intrigued him and left him with a hunger to understand the universe. That early interest served as the inspiration that led to him receiving a scholarship at the University College Oxford, where he studied physics and graduated with honors. He went on to graduate school at the University of Cambridge, where he studied cosmology and in 1966 published a thesis titled, “Properties of Expanding Universes.” Hawking became a research fellow at Cambridge after graduation and remained a fellow for the rest of his life.

Yet it was during this time period, in 1963, when at age 21 Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a motor neurone diseases, a group of disorders that affect the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. As the body’s muscles stop receiving messages from the brain, they weaken and waste away.

The diagnosis was devastating, as Hawking was told at the time that he would have one, maybe two years to live after the onset of symptoms. Decades later, doctors are realizing that the disease appears to progress differently in younger patients. Nevertheless, Hawking continued to surprise the medical community til the end: “I am not aware of anyone else who has survived with [ALS] as long,” Nigel Leigh, a professor of clinical neurology at King's College London, told the British Medical Journal in 2002.

Yet rather than slowing him down, the diagnosis only spurred him on. Hawking focused on his research more than ever before. In his best-selling A Brief History of Time, Hawking noted that in 1965, “…two years had gone by and I was not that much worse. In fact, things were going rather well for me . . .”

Indeed, that year Hawking was engaged to be married to a “very nice girl” named Jane Wilde, whom he had met at a college party in 1962. Needing a job, and hence first a PhD, he was casting about for a thesis idea when he came across the work of Roger Penrose (then at Birkbeck College in London). Penrose had used mathematical formulas to show that a star collapsing under its own gravity must become a singularity in spacetime. It didn’t take long for Hawking to cast these equations backward in time, proving that the expanding universe must have originated in a Big Bang singularity.

Black Holes: Not So Black

Hawking’s interest in singularities naturally led him to black holes. Even as ALS put him in a wheelchair by 1969, Hawking was piecing together the ideas behind the idea that earned him fame: Hawking radiation.

Hawking happened across the idea of not-so-black black holes as he was arguing against an idea posed by Jacob Bekenstein, a student at Princeton. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the disorder of any closed system increases over time. The equations of general relativity also tell us that a black hole’s event horizon, the radius that measures the “point of no return” around the singularity, only grows as a black hole feeds on matter. So Bekenstein proposed that a black hole’s event horizon was a measure of its entropy, as both grow over time. In 1972 Hawking argued this relation couldn’t be true, as black holes don’t radiate. As he notes in A Brief History of Time, “…in writing this paper I was motivated partly by irritation with Bekenstein.”

Only, Hawking soon realized, black holes do radiate, and in a way that’s exactly in line with the second law of thermodynamics. In 1974 Hawking formalized this understanding by relating the singularities of general relativity to the peculiar notion in quantum mechanics that a vacuum isn’t empty. Rather, what appears to be empty space is, thanks to quantum uncertainty, actually a bath of virtual particles that exist for a fraction of a second. Particles can’t come from nothing, so these virtual particles come in pairs, one with positive energy and one with negative energy.

What Hawking realized was that in the presence of a black hole, the immense gravitational field will lend these vacuum particles energy, making them real. If one falls into the black hole, its partner can escape. To a distant observer, the once-virtual particle will appear to emanate from the black hole itself. And the black hole itself would appear to lose a tiny bit of mass.

Hawking radiation

Hawking radiation occurs when two virtual particles pop into existence near a black hole's event horizon. The black hole's tidal gravity pulls the pair apart, boosting their energy such that they become real, long-lived particles. If one particle falls into the black hole, the other may escape, carrying away some of the black hole's energy/mass.
S&T: Gregg Dindermann

Weirdly, this Hawking radiation depends on the black hole’s mass in the opposite way that you’d think: a stellar-mass black hole would take 1066 years to evaporate, just a tad bit longer than the age of the universe (which is 1010 years, roughly speaking). Only microscopic, perhaps primordial black holes could be spotted by their Hawking radiation — theoretically, anyway, as it hasn’t been done yet.

But Hawking radiation wasn’t important so much for practical observations as for what it meant for physics in general. Black holes can feed on any kind matter — gas, stars, the kitchen sink — so they hold an incredible amount of information. As Hawking told me during the inauguration of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initative in April 2016, “[Black holes] are the most efficient hard drives in the universe. All the information in Google databanks would be stored in a black hole smaller than a millionth of a millionth of an inch. Exactly how they are able to store so much information is one of the great mysteries of the universe that we are now working very hard to unravel.” Yet, if Hawking radiation is real, then all of that data is eventually sent away in a sea of informationless particles. In other words, black holes can destroy information itself. This idea, which Hawking published in 1981, led to far more controversy than the idea of Hawking radiation. Even now, physicists are still struggling to understand the implications, not just for black holes but also for the basic precepts behind quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Fame and the Future

In 1985 Hawking suffered an infection that led to a tracheotomy, a procedure that saved his life but cost him the ability to speak. He became fully reliant on a computerized voice system, first controlled by his fingers and in 2008, when the nerve that allowed his thumbs to move degraded, a muscle in his cheek.

These setbacks didn’t set him back — in 1988, he published A Brief History of Time, a survey of the complexities of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the origin and structure of the universe. It stayed on the Sunday Times best-sellers list for 237 weeks, and is estimated to have sold 10 million copies in more than 40 languages. The clear, often witty descriptions of fundamental concepts granted him international fame, and he later made guest appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993 and The Big Bang Theory in 2012, in addition to appearing in the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics.

His personal life became tumultuous following his fame: he separated from Jane, his wife of 25 years in 1990, and they divorced in 1995. He married his one-time nurse, Elaine Mason, the same year, but they divorced in 2006. Nevertheless, Jane and Stephen Hawking maintained a good working relationship. Jane’s autobiography, titled Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, resulted in the 2014 movie celebrating Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his role as Hawking.

Fame may have brought some turbulence to Hawking’s life, but it also brought its perks. On April 26, 2007, Hawking had the opportunity to fly NASA’s KC-135, a modified jet fondly called the Vomit Comet, to achieve four minutes of weightlessness.

“The chance to float free in zero-g will be wonderful,” Hawking said during a pre-flight news conference. “I want to demonstrate to the public that anybody can participate in this type of weightless experience.”

Stephen Hawking in Zero G

Stephen Hawking enjoyed zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 707 aircraft known as KC-135, or more popularly, the Vomit Comet.

In fact, in his later years, Stephen Hawking began advocating that humanity move to the stars, largely because of his concerns over global warming, overpopulation, and epidemics, not to mention the rise of “artificial intelligence.” As part of his advocacy, Hawking helped launch Breakthrough Initiatives in 2015 and was a member of the board of Breakthrough Starshot, a project founded in 2016 with designs on visiting the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

At the launch of Breakthrough Starshot, Hawking spoke of transcending limits, saying “Nature pins us to the ground. But I just flew to America. Nature forbids me from speaking. [Pause.] But here I am.”

Friends and colleagues have paid tribute to Stephen Hawking today. Neil de Grasse Tyson said on Twitter, “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.”

NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot also issued a statement, saying “Today, the world lost a giant among men, whose impact cannot be overstated. . . . His loss is felt around the world by all he inspired with his work and his personal story of perseverance.”

But we are perhaps best left with the words of Hawking himself, a passionate advocate for understanding the universal laws that govern us all.

“I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest. So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

13 thoughts on “Stephen Hawking, 1942–2018

      1. philip-gardner

        Monica, Thanks for the great tribute to Stephen Hawking and for that last quote. Hawking had a realistic view of the universe and our role in it as mere observers on a speck of dust in some outer spiral arm in the milky way. Hawking transcended his afflictions and gained immortality with the strength of his mind and personality. Ancient Egyptians believed that we gain immortality whenever someone breathes our name. Hawking lives on.

  1. camlinhallcamlinhall

    Good bio, thanks. And you haven’t balked from his latter proposals, which have been difficult to understand
    (e.g. 100 years left before terrestrial human extinction, so go live somewhere else).
    The BBC spoke for him expansively, they being Britain and he being the pride of, and pointedly avoided these recent quotations. I got a sense that Bush House is nervous about his legacy latter.

  2. Richard SauderRichard Sauder

    I expect many folks will disagree with me but I am so sorry that Stephen Hawking had such a low view of God and Jesus Christ.
    If the Bible is really the Word of God which I believe it is, it is clear that the only way to God is through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    1. Geronimo

      I am also sad about that. Who did the Professor think helped him to achieve all the great things he achieved during his life, despite his great disability? There must have been a power outside of himself. And who put all that wonderful stuff up there in the heavens anyway? And who keeps it all there, working so beautifully? It can only be the One who is over all.

  3. msgreen46

    What a wonderful man with such brilliant intelligent eyes. And a role model to all of us in the face of overwhelming adversity. He was a seer, grounded to our Earth, with a mind that traveled to the far reaches of the Universe. And he was a speaker of the truth concerning our ultimate fates. A brief whisper in time.

  4. bsmith3544

    I enjoyed reading your article about the life of the great Dr Hawking. Also, I concur with the comments posted here. But I think there’s a small technical error in the article. Your statement about the second law of thermodynamics and “closed” systems should say “isolated” systems (systems that do not exchange heat or work with the surroundings). Anyway, thanks for another informative article.

  5. Graham-Wolf

    Fondly remembering Steven.

    Stephen was far far more than just a brilliant theoretical physicist. He was incredibly humble and kind to all. He accepted people from all walks of life, because like myself, he was a Humanist who whilst having no religious beliefs… allowed others to maintain theirs. Look at all the world figures including Mandela, that he freely associated with. Tey all loved him to bits! His infectious self deprecating dry sense of humour stood him far out from others. And that voice synthesiser….. oh that voice synthesiser!. Wikipedia has “officially” him polled as “one of the 25 most influential Brits ever to have existed”. Heck!! I would easily rank Stephen as one of the 24 most influential humans who has ever existed. Maybe, they need to do that poll again, and get it right this time.

    I admire Stephen’s family for not wrapping him up in cotton wool, and dumping him in some old-folks home to annonymously vegitate to a quick oblivion. They wisely chose to share him with the rest of the world… a no-brainer really.Many of my MS, Cerebal Palsy, and Motor Neurone friends who are also in wheel chairs, still fondly look up to Stephen as their paramount hero and global role model for the disabled. He is unquestionably still their “Poster Boy”.

    Stephen was and still is…. one-of-a-kind. An incredibly precious kind. Stephen’s dry quips are priceless. Just three of my personal favourites.

    1…”I have often been called upon, to mathematically solve the complexities of the Big Band, and the formation of the Universe. Please do not ask me to solve Brexit!”.

    2…. “I looked out my office window at Cambridge today, and saw that it was raining. This was in perfect agreement with Newtonian Physics and the Laws of Gravity. If one day, it should ever rain back upwards, into the clouds, then I think Mr Newton will be in very serious trouble!”.

    3…. “I admire celebrities who can keep a low profile in public. All they have to do, is wear a wig and dark glasses”. I sadly, do not have that luxury. My wheel-chair keeps giving me away!”

    Stephen was once asked by the British World Cup Football Team to devise a physics equation to help them shoot the perfect penalty, should they ever make the finals. Stephen even thoughtfully allowed for the Coriolis effect of the earth’s rotation… from the time the ball was kicked, to it safely passing the goalie, into the back of the net. Stephen then jokingly added that…. “if they can’t bend it like Bekham (famous English goal shooter), then the England Team is doomed”.

    A remarkable life well lived in spite of. I maintained some mild contact with Stephen (during my days at NZ’s National Observatory) via some very powerful astrophysics peers (that frankly) I was quite unworthy to know… including Roger Penrose, who visited me briefly in Wellington~ 1992.

    Stephen… you passing is papable and quite debilitating. You were a world hero…. on so many fronts. Thanks you to his family for sharing their photos. My favourite is Stephen twirling in the Vomit Comet. For 4 precious minutes, he was set free. Now, Stephen is free forever. Thank you Stephen, for so many wonderful memories. You are still so precious to me!

    Graham W. Wolf at 46 South Dunedin, NZ.

  6. Graham-Wolf

    Apologies, Monica, for the typos.

    Got out of my sick bed to compile my last post, and the un-correcting text-ware in the public computer, did not help matters at all. Message should still be unmistakable, though.
    Graham W. Wolf at 46 South, Dunedin, NZ.

    Just received on national news over here 2 hrs ago, that Humanity Star will de-orbit and re-enter some time early Friday morning NZDT….. in less than 72 hrs time!

    1. Monica YoungMonica Young Post author

      Indeed unmistakable, Graham, and thank you for sharing your remembrances. I hadn’t heard those quotes before, they’re delightful! I was remiss in not including more of his quips in this article, as there are many on many different topics, but he certainly did have a healthy sense of humor!

  7. Graham-Wolf

    Hi Monica.

    I’ve come to call Stephen’s one-liner’s:”- affectionally…. “Hawking Howlers”.
    Great to share just three of my personal favourites with your readers. There are many more!

    The blonde woman in the vomit comet pic with Stephen is almost certainly his wonderful daughter, Lucy. Stephen like me, was a huge fan of Monty Python British humour. Americans may find the humour style a bit wierd and challenging, but we Kiwis fall over over with laughter.. There is an “infamous” skit in which Monty Python sing the “Galaxy Song”. It was written by Eric Idle and John Du Prez ~ 1983. During my time at my National Observatory in the 80s and 90s, I often played it to public audiences at my astro-lectures, as It was such a great tool to teach basic astrophysics in about 3 minutes or so.

    Stephen was involved in a famous remake of that song. As the song finishes, the video cuts to an out-take of Professor Brian Cox making some strong criticisms as to the precise accuracy of the lyrics. Stephen looms up from behind in his wheel chair and runs Cox down. As Cox staggers back to his feet, Stephen mutters something about Cox being too pendantic, then his wheelchair rises from the ground into the sky (like a Cape Canaveral launch) and then sails amongst the stars.


    It is too easy to think of Stephen as a tragic shrinking violet, but he was anything but! He had a wicked sense of humour, and this video is a perfect example of that. I couldn’t imaging Patrick Moore (too conservative and “old school” being involved in a Monty Python skit, but Stephen was always going to be up-for-it. I think Stephen’s version of Monty Python was ~ April 2015, and he also released a record, which was a popular hit.

    I’m so proud of Stephen’s dry wit and humour, he was quite an unforgettable character.
    He resonated so fully with me, and he was far too good for a Nobel Prize.
    The Universe is such a darker place without him!

    Graham W. Wolf at 46 South, Dunedin, NZ.

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