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Professor Stephen Hawking dead at 76

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Stephen Hawking, one of the world's foremost theoretical physicists, has died at age 76. On the cover of the Oxford Dictionary of Scientists, Hawking appeared with Einstein and Madame Curie, an apt demonstration of his renown, reported USA Today.

For decades, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair by a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a neurological disease that handcuffs movement. He communicated via a speech synthesizer. A cause of death was not immediately available. His family announced his death via statement early Wednesday.

Hawking was best known as the author of A Brief History of Time, the best-selling 1988 book that first brought modern astrophysics into popular understanding for many and made him into an icon. His comments on black holes and other physics phenomena were regularly noted in newspapers. The fact that The Simpsons featured him in one of its cartoon episodes showed his reach into popular culture. He was also featured in Big Bang Theory, as a hero to the show's main character, theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper.

His book The Grand Design, co-authored with Caltech’s Leonard Mlodinow, again attracted readers, as well as controversy, with its claim that cosmology showed God was unnecessary to the creation of the universe.

His public image could not have occurred without the media. With his participation, they shaped and molded it,” wrote American University science writing professor Declan Fahy, in the Columbia Journalism Review on the occasion of Hawking’s 70th birthday in 2012. “This has led to tensions within his field. Other physicists have been, at times, ambivalent about his reputation, because of what some of them see as his having a public profile that is out of proportion to his scientific merit.”

However, Hawking’s popularity rested on genuine achievement, remarkable strides in understanding black holes and the origin of the universe, Fahy noted, starting with a 1974 paper entitled “Black hole explosion?” published in the journal, Nature. “Hawking radiation,” for example, the emission of heat from black holes, is now accepted as a fundamental, unexpected, concept in physics, one that solved a puzzle of how these imploded stars could exist and be theoretically reconciled with conventional understanding of energy. He showed that black holes served as cosmic laboratories for sorting out Einstein’s theory of gravity with the “quantum” theories of electromagnetic and nuclear forces that has divided physics for decades.

He also excelled at encouraging other researchers, famously betting his theories against others as a spur to research. Hawking conceded one such bet in 2004, admitting his theory, created in collaboration with physicist Kip Thorne, that black holes may remove information entirely from the universe, by pulling everything including light down its gravitational maw and preventing it from ever re-entering space, was probably wrong. He delivered a baseball encyclopedia to American physicist John Preskill as the price for losing his wager (Thorne did not concede).

Born in Oxford, England, Hawking graduated from Oxford University and later Cambridge University, taking the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics position there in 1979, a position once held by Isaac Newton. He is survived by his three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy, children of his first marriage. Hawking’s second marriage, to Jane Hawking, ended in 2006, a subject of tabloid news stories.

Despite his physical ailments, he was known for a direct and dry wit, often combining the marvelous and mundane in his observations. “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star,” he told Der Spiegel in 1989. “But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.”

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