Physicist Stephen Hawking, who conquered the stars, dies at 76

Professor Stephen Hawking at Cambridge in 2013

Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. His father, a research biologist, had moved with his mother from London to escape German bombing. After completing his schooling, he went to Oxford University for his undergraduate and later did a Ph.D.at Cambridge.

Even though his body was attacked by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, when Hawking was 21, he stunned doctors by living with the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years.

But the disease progressed more slowly than expected.

Hawking also defied predictions that he would only live for a few years, overcoming its debilitating effects on his mobility and speech that left him paralysed and was able to communicate only via a computer speech synthesiser. The book sold more than 10 million copies, and has been translated into 35 languages. Hawking is best known for his work on black holes, which revolutionised our understanding of the universe.

But it was perhaps his "theory of everything", suggesting that the universe evolves according to well-defined laws, that attracted most attention.

Speaking to Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain he said his children had brought him great joy before adding: "And I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space". "Where is it going and will it have an end? If we find the answers to these questions, we really shall know the mind of God".

Hawking became a hero to math and science geeks and pop culture figure, guest-starring as himself on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "The Simpsons".

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The rock group Pink Floyd used his distinctive synthesised voice for the introduction to Keep Talking, on their 1994 album The Division Bell.

The combination of his best-selling book and his nearly total disability - for a while he could use a few fingers, later he could only tighten the muscles on his face - made him one of science's most recognizable faces.

But his condition inevitably made him dependent on others.

Hawking and Jane divorced in 1995 and he married his second wife, his nurse Elaine Mason, but they divorced in 2006.

Hawking's genius brought him global fame and he become known as a witty communicator dedicated to bringing science to a wider audience. No action was taken.

In the book he related how he was first diagnosed: "I felt it was very unfair - why should this happen to me", he wrote. Instead, he said he wanted to show that disability was no bar to achievement and to encourage interest in space, where he believed humankind's destiny lay. "But now, 50 years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life".

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