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14 March 2018

“Make sure we keep talking”: the horizon-expanding curiosity of Stephen Hawking

His search for a theory of everything became a story for everyone. 

By India Bourke

The internationally celebrated theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, has died at his home in Cambridge at the age of 76. 

In a statement about their father’s death, his children Lucy, Robert and Tim acknowledged how his study of the stars inspired millions around the world: “He once said, ‘It wouldn’t be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

The news broke on the same night that the UK awaited the Russian government’s response to the poisoning of a former spy on British soil – and was a timely reminder of what connects us across borders. “All we need to do is make sure we keep talking,” Hawking once advised humanity (words that the band Pink Floyd would later re-purpose). 

Born in 1942, on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, his mother fled London’s war-time bombs for the safety of the countryside, and the young scientist would grow up in a house in St Albans with a basement full of bees and a greenhouse full of fireworks.

A passion for mathematics soon led him to a PhD in physics at the University of Cambridge. But the growing power of his mind was coming into conflict with the deteriorating state of his health, and he was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease called ALS. He was just 21 years old.

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His symptoms would later require the use of a wheelchair and a voice-synthesiser, yet the experience spurred on his work. “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing,” he wrote in his memoir. “I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I was reaprieved.”

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Hawking’s research in the field of black holes and relativity, together with his fellow cosmologist Roger Penrose, earned him vast international acclaim and prestige; most famously in proving that black holes were not vacuums or “eternal prisons”.

Then in 1988, he published a book, A Brief History of Time, which set records all of its own. Published in 40 languages, the bestseller explained complex ideas about how the universe started and how it might end to a mass audience.

He always remained anxious about about what might lie ahead for humanity, however, issuing numerous warnings about the giant balls of cosmic fire or take-overs by artificial-intelligence that could lie in wait.

But it was perhaps this mix of horizon-expanding curiosity and deep personal care that turned his search for a theory of everything into a story for everyone. At a time when the cold war’s space race was finally approaching an end, Hawking’s work inspired a whole generation to think differently about the stars and our place within them.

“No one created the universe and no one directs our fate,” he once wrote. “This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe—and for that I am extremely grateful.”