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Stephen Hawking: The modern-day Galileo with a never-say-die spirit

Devangshu Datta/ 14 Mar 18 | 04:30 AM

Stephen Hawking was in his early 20s when he learnt that he was afflicted by a cruel disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — that would gradually reduce him to paralysis and probably lead to his early death. He faced that bleak prospect with an extraordinary combination of courage, determination and humour. As he once said, "It matters that you don't give up".

By the time he passed away on Wednesday, the 76-year-old had radically altered the way physicists viewed the universe and he had also inspired generations of disabled people. Hawking was the quintessential public intellectual, instantly recognisable in his motorised wheelchair with his computer-generated voice. His books sold in the tens of millions, though he wryly said that the groundbreaking "The Brief History of Time" was probably the "most- bought and least-read" bestseller of all time.  

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His lectures and pronouncements were always a mixture of joy and intellectual provocation. Whenever topics such as aliens ("probably quite common but not necessarily intelligent. Some say intelligent life is yet to appear on Earth") , space exploration (he loved his experiences in zero-gravity), artificial intelligence (potentially dangerous) were publicly debated, Hawking's opinion was eagerly sought. His wisdom always came leavened with a large dollop of humour.  

His scientific credentials rest mainly on his theoretical work that indicated that black holes radiated a form of radiation which is now named "Hawking Radiation" in his honour. He did that work in 1974, in partnership with the mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose. 

Hawking was also in the forefront of the cosmological effort to unify Einstein's Theory of Relativity with the chaotic findings of Quantum Physics. In addition, he ended up at the cutting-edge of medical technology, performing the role of guinea pig and experimenter, and aiding in the development of sophisticated communication systems and mobility aids that helped paraplegics to interact with the world around them.  

Hawking was born on Jan 08, 1942 — exactly 300 years after Galileo's death. He graduated from Oxford and received his Phd from Cambridge, studying under Fred Hoyle and Dennis Sciama. By the time he finished his Phd, he needed crutches to move around and his mobility further reduced over time. In the 1980s, he contracted pneumonia which robbed him of the ability to speak. Through it all, he continued working. He married and divorced twice, fathering three children with his first wife, Jane. 

Famously an atheist, Hawking was grateful that he had one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe. He said that he was not afraid of death but also in no hurry to die; he had too much to do. It is up to the next generation to build upon his legacy.   

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