Physicist Stephen Hawking Dies At Age 76

Stephen Hawking died Wednesday after complications due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He was 76.

Hawking used his position as one of the world’s most famous scientists as a platform to discuss a wide range of issues, from the existence of extraterrestrial life to the nature of philosophy. He skyrocketed to public prominence in 1988, when he published his first general-audience book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. The cosmology treatise has sold approximately 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling science books of all time.

In 1963, when he was just 21 years old, Hawking was famously diagnosed with the debilitating motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Though 80 percent of those with ALS die within five years of diagnosis, and Hawking’s own doctors gave him roughly two years to live, he survived for decades, perhaps longer than any other patient with the disease in medical history. Hawking used a wheelchair to move around and a sophisticated computer system to speak for much of his time as a public figure.

The physicist’s inspiring ― and turbulent ― personal story was dramatized in the 2014 movie “The Theory of Everything,” which was based on a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde. Actor Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking in the film won him an Oscar for best actor.

While studying at Cambridge, Hawking met Wilde, a fellow St. Albans native who was a student in modern languages at Westfield College in London at the time. Before the two started dating, Hawking collapsed while ice skating and couldn’t get up. His mother made him go to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS and estimated he had just over two years to live.

Years later, during a symposium at Cambridge on his 70th birthday, Hawking reflected on how much he struggled to stay motivated after his diagnosis. Why work so hard for a Ph.D. when you could be dead in two years?

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he said. “Try to make sense of what you see and 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.”

Hawking’s motor control deteriorated rapidly; he was soon walking to class on crutches. Yet the disease spurred him to deepen his relationship with Wilde quickly. They married in 1965.

Though Hawking’s family life flourished during this time ― he and Jane Hawking went on to have two more children ― his health did not. He reluctantly started using a wheelchair in 1969, and by the mid-70s, he could no longer feed or clothe himself.

In 1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia while on a trip to Switzerland. Doctors performed a tracheotomy that allowed him to breathe but rendered him unable to speak naturally. At first, he communicated using word cards, which was agonizingly slow. But in 1986, computer scientist Walter Woltosz gave him a device that would vocalize words he typed using a joystick. Hawking called this system, which has since been upgraded several times, “The Computer.” Its electronic voice was an integral part of the physicist’s public image.

Stephen and Jane Hawking separated after several years of tension in 1990, which Jane said was exacerbated by her husband’s newfound “fame and fortune.” The physicist began a relationship with Elaine Mason, one of his nurses. After his divorce from Jane Hawking, he married Mason in 1995.

In addition to his two former wives, Hawking is survived by three children and three grandchildren.