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Physicist Stephen Hawking’s profound flights of fancy

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is assisted off the tarmac

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is assisted off the tarmac at the Kennedy Space Center by his caregiver, Monica Guy, as he is applauded by the flight crew after completing a zero-gravity flight on April 26, 2007, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: AP / Peter Cosgrove

When you pursue a “theory of everything” that would answer every outstanding question in physics, you’ve effectively declared war on the notion of limits. That was the brilliance of Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist who smashed through limitations both professional and personal.

Hawking, who died Tuesday at age 76, persevered despite the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease — as a young man. He became revered worldwide in a way typically reserved for artists and athletes. But it would be wrong to say his body betrayed him. His loss of muscle movement was indeed profound; from his wheelchair, he spoke only through a computer-synthesized voice. But his physical limitations led him to mental flights of fancy, the daring theorizing that resulted in his greatest achievements — like his proposition that the gravitational sinks known as black holes do, in fact, emit radiation.

Hawking told people at one lecture that they, too, could escape from whatever black hole they were in — “There’s a way out,” he said — an example of the humanizing touch that endeared him to so many. He had the grace to make complicated topics understandable, and the humility to question his own fame, shunning comparisons to the likes of Einstein.

One never knew what Hawking might do next, or where he would pop up. He flew on a jet capable of producing zero gravity so he could experience the phenomenon of weightlessness. He visited Antarctica and Easter Island. He met presidents and prime ministers. He counted among his heroes Einstein, Galileo, Darwin — and Marilyn Monroe. And when one interviewer asked him what he most thought about, the twice married-and-divorced Hawking said, “Women. They are a complete mystery.”

Hawking challenged admirers with his fierce atheism, delighted them with a puckish sense of humor that landed him on TV shows like “The Simpsons,” and stirred them with a call for space exploration as a matter of practicality — humans would need another home in the event of nuclear war or global contagion.

In the end, Stephen Hawking died on Einstein’s birthday. Imagine that. — The editorial board