Stephen Hawking, ALS Patient and Renowned Scientist, Dies at 76

World-renowned Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking died at his home in England early this morning. He was 76 years old.

World-renowned Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking died at his home in England early this morning. He was 76 years old.

In January, Rare Disease Report celebrated Hawking’s 76th birthday, highlighting his life as one of the longest-living patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Typical life expectancy for patients living with ALS is 3 years, with only 10% living up to 10 years beyond diagnosis, and a mere half that surviving 20 years after being diagnosed.

Hawking received his fate in 1963 at the age of 21, and was initially given 2 years to live. He feared that once his able body had failed him, he would be executed. He went on to thrive for more than half a century with the progressive degenerative neurological disease.

Hawking, widely considered by many to be the world’s greatest scientist, was also a cosmologist, astronomer, and mathematician. In 1988, he published A Brief History of Time, which has since sold more than 10 million copies.

Hawking’s longevity has sometimes been attributed to his early diagnosis, and other times to his genetic makeup; both are proven to be linked with increased survival. The disabled scientist, wheelchair-bound and paralyzed, with his physical mobility reduced to the flexing of a single finger, celebrated his 60th birthday by taking flight in a hot air balloon. Hawking was completely dependent on either other people or technology for virtually everything, and still, in April 2007, boarded a zero-gravity flight aboard a specially-equipped Boeing 727, a padded aircraft that generates momentary phases of weightlessness.

“I have lived most of my life in the expectation of an early death, so time has always been precious to me,” stated Hawking in 2006. "I have so much that I want to do.”

Hawking’s most notable work came in 1974, when his exploration into gravity and the properties of black holes was published in the journal Nature. The thesis, titled “Black Hole Explosions?,” is largely recognized by scientists to be the first study of the connection between gravity and quantum mechanics.

Until his death, Hawking continued to conduct occasional lectures at Cambridge University, where he served as a faculty member for the Institute of Astronomy for more than 4 decades. In 2009, the prestigious institution named him Director of Research of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).

“His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty,” said the prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a tweet. “Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure.”

Steve Gleason, former National Football League (NFL) star and current ALS patient was quick to shout out the impact Hawking had on his life, as well. He tweeted: “Stephen Hawking inspired me before ALS — to keep asking questions, seeking answers, and understanding the cosmic perspective. But since ALS, he saved my life with his example – people diagnosed with ALS can continue to live productive & purposeful lives for decades.”

Hawking had been presented with at least 12 honorary degrees, and was recognized as Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1982. In 2009, notwithstanding his citizenship in England, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. In his later years, Hawking was featured in guest roles on the popular television series The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory.

Surviving Hawking are his three children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, three grandchildren, and legacy as somebody who prospered while living with a rare disease.

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