Physicist and writer

Born: January 8, 1942;

Died: March 14, 2018

PROFESSOR Stephen Hawking, who has died at the age of 76, was an extraordinary and revolutionary physicist, teacher and writer unlike any other in his field. There are many brilliant minds at work in theoretical physics, but Professor Hawking undoubtedly became the most famous cosmologist in the world and the first of a new and emerging breed: the celebrity scientist.

Mostly, this was due to his brilliant work in the field of theoretical physics and in particular his ground-breaking theories on black holes. But it was also because of his desire to popularise and disseminate his work as widely as possible, particularly in his most successful book A Brief History of Time. It was published in 1988 and went on to sell more than 25 million copies.

Professor Hawking also attracted attention, and indeed became a cult figure in film and television for defying the odds of his motor neurone disease. He was diagnosed with the condition when he was 22 and was given just a few years to live, but survived with it for more than 50, relying on a wheelchair and a voice synthetizer.

The condition meant life was difficult and expensive – wherever he went a large team of assistants and nurses went with him – but his unique appearance and sound also made him a popular choice for guest appearances on television – something which Hawking embraced. He appeared on the sit-com The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and recently featured in the new radio series of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 2014, the film The Theory of Everything also told the story of his life.

He was born in Born in Oxford but grew up in St Albans where he had a somewhat difficult time at school. Interested in jazz and classical music rather than pop and obviously extremely bright from a young age, he was never a popular pupil. However, he was not top of the class either.

He won a scholarship to study physics at University College, Oxford, but found when he got there that he was so good he didn’t need to put in much effort. He once said that his work there amounted to an average of about one hour a day and he was not proud of the fact that he didn’t try as hard as he should have.

He got a first class degree though, and worked on a PHD in Cambridge, but had already started to show the early signs of his motor neurone disease. During his last year at Oxford he became clumsy, and twice fell over for no apparent reason. Shortly after his 21st birthday he went for tests, and at 22 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease.

The news came as an enormous shock to Hawking, but he was helped by an old friend, Jane Wilde, who went on to become his first wife, and after coming to terms with his condition, threw himself into his work.

Very quickly, he started to make his mark. At one Royal Society meeting, the still-unknown Hawking interrupted a lecture by the renowned astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle, then at the pinnacle of his career, to inform him that he had made a mistake. An irritated Sir Fred asked how Hawking presumed to know that his calculations were wrong. Hawking replied: "Because I've worked them out in my head."

Hawking became best known for his work on black holes, the mysterious infinitely dense regions of compressed matter where the normal laws of physics break down, which dominated the whole of his academic life. He predicted in the 1970s that black holes can emit energy, despite the classical view that nothing - not even light - can escape their gravity. The theory is that Hawking Radiation as it came to be known eventually causes black holes to "evaporate" and vanish.

Had the existence of Hawking Radiation been proved by astronomers or physicists, it would almost certainly have earned Professor Hawking a Nobel Prize. As it turned out, the greatest scientific accolade eluded him.

His theory did win him huge academic respect though – high regard matched and even exceeded by his status as an icon of popular culture. He arrived at the University of Cambridge in 1962 as a PhD student, and rose through the ranks to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

Other honours mounted up. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society at the very young age of 32 and received its highest honour, the Copley medal, in 2006. He was made a CBE in 1982.

However, he was never stuffy and possessed an almost child-like sense of fun, which helped to endear him to the public. He booked a seat on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space plane and rehearsed for the trip by floating inside a steep-diving Nasa aircraft - dubbed the "vomit comet" - used to simulate weightlessness.

On one wall of his office at Cambridge University was a clock depicting Homer Simpson, whose theory of a doughnut-shaped universe he threatened to steal in an episode of the cartoon show. He is said to have glared at the clock whenever a visitor was late.

Upheaval in his personal life also hit the headlines. In February 1990 he left Jane, his wife of 25 years, to set up home with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason. The couple married in September 1995 but divorced in 2006.

He ruffled a few feathers in the scientific establishment with statements about the existence of aliens and in 2015 he teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner who has launched a series of projects aimed at finding evidence of alien life. The Breakthrough Listen initiative aims to step up the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) by listening out for alien signals with more sensitivity than ever before.

Professor Hawking, who also published The Illiustrated Brief History of Time in 1996 and The Universe in a Nutshell in 2001, is survived by his children Lucy, Robert and Tim.