Stephen Hawking, the groundbreaking theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and cultural icon, has died at the age of 76. On March 14, he passed away from complications due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). When he was 21, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS and was told he would not live past 25. He would go on to live 55 more years, contributing some of the most influential discoveries in the field of physics.
At age 28, Stephen Hawking and his research partner Roger Penrose published a revolutionary paper outlining the nature of black holes, a subject that had confounded physicists. Hawking and Penrose discovered that black holes can only grow; they could never shrink or split. Four years later, Hawking and Penrose published one of their most groundbreaking discoveries: Hawking radiation. Energy is emitted after a black hole absorbs matter, eventually leading to an unstable burnout. Throughout his career, Hawking developed his black hole theory in the field of quantum physics and investigated the origin of the universe. He expanded the horizon of quantum mechanics, dissected the principles of the Big Bang, and broadened the scientific community’s understanding of thermodynamics.
One of his greatest achievements was making complex scientific knowledge accessible to the general public. At age 46, he published A Brief History of Time, where he explored the nature of time, gravity, and the origin of the universe.
He also inquired about a universal theory of physics, a “theory of everything,” that could encapsulate the mechanics of the universe. Such a theory, he stated, would allow humanity to “know the mind of God.” Later in his life, he admitted that he no longer believed there was a unified theory of everything.
Hawking repeatedly stated that he was an atheist. He found no reason to believe in a personal god to run the universe, when he thought observations in physics provide a sounder explanation. To him, God could only be a passive force within the universe, not the creator of it.
Of course, Hawking was always engaged in the debate on the existence of God. In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Vatican astronomer, physicist, and theologian Br. Guy Consolmagno stated that “the 'god' that Stephen Hawking doesn't believe in is one I don't believe in either.” Despite his atheist views, Hawking met four popes (Blessed Paul VI through Pope Francis), was always open to discussing the relationship between faith and science, and was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
The Academy was founded by Pope Pius IX in 1847 as a forum for scientific discussion between experts of varying religious beliefs (or lack thereof). The Academy is a testament to the idea that scientific discoveries do not interfere with religious faith, and those with strong religious beliefs can still express valid findings. In one of their conferences, Stephen Hawking recognized Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre as the father of the Big Bang Theory. Hawking would actively contribute to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by delivering presentations on his black hole theory and the origin of the universe.
On the wake of his death, Stephen Hawking is remembered for his determination and intellect. As a theoretical physicist, he is lauded for changing the scientific landscape; as a writer, for bringing science to popular culture; and as an atheist academic, for remaining open to theological debate.