World’s famous physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, dies at 76

Professor Stephen Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

Professor Stephen Hawking , the celebrated theoretical physicist regarded as one of the most intelligent people the world has ever known, has died at the age of 76.

He died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of Wednesday morning, his family has confirmed.

His children, Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement: "We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

"He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.

"His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.

"He once said, 'It would not be much of a universe if it wasn't home to the people you love.' We will miss him forever."

Professor Hawking spent most of his life in a wheelchair, unable to speak or move after being diagnosed with ALS - or motor neurone disease - at the age of 21.

Professor Stephen Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

His sharp mind changed the way people understand the universe with his breakthrough theory that radiation comes from black holes.

While most experts in his field remain relatively unnoticed by the public, Mr Hawking achieved a rare rock star-like status with his ability to explain his theories and his outspoken views on the future of the universe, philosophy, politics and even aliens.

He became a best-selling author and acclaimed scientist and even earned a special place in pop culture lore thanks to appearances on TV programmes such as The Simpsons.

Professor Hawking leaves behind a fascinating legacy after defying the odds with every accomplishment.

Doctors gave him just two years to live when he was first diagnosed with ALS, but he defied the dim prognosis by decades and worked right up until his death.

The physicist was a prolific author and published a number of books, but none were as famous as his best-selling A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies after it was published in 1988.

And almost as confirmation of his celebrity status, the story of his early life and studies, rise to global fame and turbulent first marriage were turned into a Hollywood script - with the 2014 film The Theory of Everything proving to be a big screen hit.

Actor Eddie Redmayne won an Academy Award and BAFTA for his portrayal of the physicist, adding another layer to Mr Hawking's celebrity status.

Stephen William Hawking was born to Oxford-educated parents Frank and Isobel Hawking in Oxford on 8 January 1942, at the height of World War Two,

Professor Stephen Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

Frank, a medical researcher, and Isobel, a secretary, lived in Highgate, north London, but decided it would be safer to have their baby back in Oxford after the Germans had bombed the capital in the Blitz.

They sent their son to Byron House School in Highgate but the eccentric family moved to St Albans when he was eight after his father got a job at the National Institute for Medical Research. A young Stephen Hawking was then educated at St Albans School from the age of 11 and attended his father's old college, University College, Oxford.

Mr Hawking himself admitted he wasn't a brilliant student during his childhood, as he was unable to read properly until he was eight and struggled to score higher than his classmates in St Albans.

But as he grew into a genius it seems his journey into the physics elite was almost written in the stars.

He was originally interested in mathematics and his father had hoped he would pursue a career in medicine.

However mathematics was not available at University College, so he decided to pursue physics instead.

After three years and “not very much work”, he was awarded a first class honours degree in natural science. Mr Hawking then went on to the University of Cambridge to research cosmology under the supervision of Denis Sciama, a founder of modern cosmology - although he had hoped to be assigned to astronomer Fred Hoyle.

Professor Stephen Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

After he started work on his graduate degree Mr Hawking began to experience symptoms such as slurred speech and stumbling, and received shocking news that sent his life into a tailspin.

Shortly after his 21st birthday in 1963 he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which destroys the muscles and central nervous system.

Doctors offered a grim prognosis, telling him he had around two years left to live.

By then he had fallen in love with his future wife Jane Wilde, a languages student, who pulled him out of a deep depression.

The young couple married in 1965 and had three children - Lucy, Robert and Timothy - but their marriage was doomed.

Mr Hawking's disease progressed rapidly, but eventually slowed as he devoted himself to his studies and work without knowing how much time he had left to live.

He investigated the basic laws which govern the universe and with physicist Roger Penrose showed that Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity implied that space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes.

It was a major scientific breakthrough, suggesting that it was necessary to unify general relativity with quantum theory.

While his work life was flourishing, his marriage was under immense strain as his isolated wife struggled to cope with the demands of a young family and a husband in a wheelchair.

She told the Telegraph in 2015 that she was driven to the brink of suicide several times while caring for her husband and their children.

Professor Stephen Hawking [Photo: Courtesy]

In Mr Hawking's memoir, My Brief History, published in 2013, he wrote that Jane feared he would die soon and, when that happened, she wanted someone who would support her and marry her.

In 1977, with Mr Hawking's star rising, she met musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones after joining a local church choir.

He became part of the family after moving into their Cambridge flat with Mr Hawking's blessing, as he too wanted someone to care for Jane and his children after he died.

Jane and Jonathan maintained a platonic relationship, and married in 1997 after her split from Mr Hawking.

By the mid-1980s Mr Hawking was renowned for his work and he was in demand all over the world.

But his health took another turn for the worse when, in 1985, he lost his ability to speak after he came down with pneumonia during a visit to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

He was in a critical condition in hospital and put on a ventilator, but Jane wouldn’t allow doctors to switch off his life support.

He was flown back to Cambridge, where doctors performed a tracheotomy that left him unable to speak.

Jane remained by her husband's side but the stress of the ordeal and Mr Hawking's recovery had taken its toll. The fame he had gained from A Brief History of Time only made things worse.

By then he had grown increasingly unhappy with his wife's relationship with Jonathan, and had grown close to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whose first husband invented the computerised voice synthesiser that Mr Hawking uses.

In 1990, after 26 years of marriage, Mr Hawking left Jane and moved into a flat with Elaine.

The couple married in 1995, but that relationship became turbulent.

In 2004 nurses caring for Mr Hawking went to police with claims that his wife was physically and emotionally abusing him.

The couple denied the allegations and an investigation was dropped by police. They eventually divorced in 2007.

While he had a grasp on things that most people couldn’t comprehend, Mr Hawking admitted he struggled to understand the opposite sex.

In an interview in 2012 a New Scientist reporter asked him what he thought about most during the day.

“Women,” he responded. “They are a complete mystery.”

Mr Hawking - a grandfather of three - obtained his PhD in cosmology in 1966 and became a research fellow and a professorial fellow at Gonville and Caius College.

He left the Institute of Astronomy in 1973 and joined the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1979, holding the prestigious post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics for 30 years until 2009. The chair was created in 1663 and one of the early holders was Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the laws of gravity and motion, and invented calculus.

Up until his death Mr Hawking was an active member of the Cambridge University community and still had an office at the Department for Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics.

His official title was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research.

Over his career he received a number of awards, medals and prizes from countries around the world, and at least dozen honorary degrees in recognition for his work.

He was awarded the CBE in 1982 and made a Companion of Honour in 1989, and was a fellow of The Royal Society and member of the US National Academy of Science.

Other honours included the Pius XI Gold Medal from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1975, the Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal in 1985, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and the Fundamental Physics Prize from Russia in 2012.

Before his death he continued to combine family life and his research into theoretical physics, along with travel and public lectures, his biography stated.

And he still hoped to one day make it into space.

Sir Richard Branson had offered him a seat on a Virgin Galactic commercial spacecraft.