Billed as a scientist only rivaled by Albert Einstein in modern times, Stephen Hawking inspired billions in the pursuit of science and discovery. When he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963, the budding physicist was given just two years to live. Statistically, 90% of people die within a decade of diagnosis. Despite his firm belief in math, he defied the odds and lived another 55 years, dying at age 76.
While his paralysis set in slowly, Hawking was forced to find other ways to communicate. While he first started by motioning to cue cards with his eyebrows, his text-to-voice computer system would become something of a trademark starting in 1986. He initially directed his speech using a keypad, but as the disease progressed, he would eventually use just his cheek to give lectures. As technology improved, he was offered an array of voices to choose from, but decided to stick to his original, stating that he identified with it now. Despite his many accolades, he was known to credit his appearances on The Simpsons for making him so well known.
Retaining much of his wit throughout life, friends and colleagues remarked he had a habit of driving his wheelchair recklessly. At Oxford, Hawking was known as a daredevil on the college rowing team, often steering his team on risky courses and damaging several boats.
One humorous experiment he chose to carry out was a party for time travelers. Despite announcing the event publicly and sending out invitations not a single one showed up. To make sure no one cheated, he actually kept the party a secret until after it had taken place. Sitting alone at the party, he decided he now had scientific evidence that time travel was impossible.
Extolled as a genius today, biographers note he wasn’t very successful academically in high school. By the time he was in Oxford, he claimed he studied for over 1,000 hours. Hawking collaborated with Roger Penrose to develop a theory of singularities, even offering that the universe may have once started as one.
Stricken with paralysis, Hawking had little ability to write down notes or equations for study, meaning most of his calculations were done entirely in his head. Many compare this to Mozart’s ability to compose symphonies in his mind. Hawking himself describes a sensation of interpreting equations as geometry.
Continuing his research on black holes, he would collaborate to develop the four laws of black hole mechanics and even have a form of radiation emitted from black holes named after him. He would later begin exploring quantum mechanics, with much of his findings abbreviated in the short book, A Brief History of Time, which described much of his work in a way anybody could understand. Finishing the book using his voice-to-text system, it has sold over 10 million copies.
Becoming popular for his work as a science writer, Hawking became important to the proliferation of scientific understanding, the future of humanity, and disability awareness. By the time of his death, he earned his spot as one of the all-time great scientists of the cosmos, alongside figures like Einstein, Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus.