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Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking, shown here delivering a speech at George Washington University in 2008, has passed away at the age of 76. (NASA Photo / Paul E. Alers)

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist who became famous for his way-out theories and for overcoming debilitating disease, has died at the age of 76, his children said in a statement tonight.

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” according to the statement, which was distributed by British news media and attributed to Lucy, Robert and Timothy Hawking. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

The statement said Hawking died peacefully in his home near Cambridge University.

“His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world,” the children said. “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.”

Hawking had to cope with neurodegenerative disease since graduate school, and had been confined to a wheelchair for decades. In his latter years, he could communicate only by blinking his eyes to control a computer and a digitally simulated voice.

Nevertheless, he achieved a level of fame that few scientists in history ever attained.

His life was the subject of an award-winning 2014 movie, “The Theory of Everything.” His book about cosmology, “A Brief History of Time,” became a bestseller when it was published in 1998. (It also spawned follow-up books, including “The Grand Design” and “A Briefer History of Time.”)

Hawking never received a Nobel Prize, but his theories about the nature of black holes and spacetime contributed to Nobel-winning discoveries such as the direct detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.

He championed the search for alien civilizations — but also voiced concerns about what we might find. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he said in 2010.

Hawking also said it was imperative that humans spread out to new worlds within the next century or two. “We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years, but if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space,” he warned.

One of Hawking’s best-known scientific contributions is the concept of Hawking radiation — the idea that black holes radiate a trickle of energy due to the quantum nature of spacetime.

Although his base of operations was at Cambridge University, he traveled widely around the world. Hawking’s most recent high-profile visit to Seattle came in 2012. During that trip, he gave a lecture at the Paramount Theater, went sightseeing and visited with family and friends.

While visiting Seattle, Hawking was asked how he’d describe his quality of life in light of his long struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He told journalists that his life was actually “pretty good.”

“I have been very successful in my scientific work, and have become one of the best-known scientists in the world,” he said. “I have three children, and three grandchildren so far. I travel widely, have been to Antarctica and have met the presidents of Korea, China, India, Ireland, Chile and the United States. I have been down in a submarine, and up in a zero-gravity flight in preparation for the flight into space that I’m hoping to make on Virgin Galactic.

“Despite my disability, I have managed to do most things I want,” Hawking said. “My main regret is that it has prevented me from playing with my children and grandchildren as fully as I want.”

Hawking was married and divorced twice. After his divorce from his second wife, Elaine, he became close again with his first wife, Jane. The screenplay for “The Theory of Everything” is based on Jane Hawking’s biography, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.”

One of Hawking’s sons, Robert, has worked as a software engineer at Microsoft and lives in Seattle.

In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking was an advocate for people with disabilities, in part because of the disease he had to deal with in his own life. His final posting on Facebook, written last December, put out a call to challenge proposed changes in Britain’s health care system. He signed it with his initials: “SH.”

Sidelights on Stephen Hawking:

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