Front-page on every news source today is the sad report that Stephen Hawking died yesterday at the age of 76. For the best description of his scientific accomplishments, I recommend the obituary in the Guardian written by his sometime collaborator Roger Penrose.
I was going to write a little bit about one time I heard Hawking speak (or rather, his student interpret for us his speech), which was at the IAS back in the early 1980s. I just noticed though that evidently John Baez was at the same talk (he was an undergrad, I was a grad student), and describes it well here.
At the time I remember that many thought that quantum gravity would be understood within a few years, and that Hawking would not be able to live longer than another year or two, given the nature of the disease he was suffering from. It’s wonderful that the second of these turned out to be so wrong.
While Hawking was already a star in the physics community back then, his celebrity with the wider public came later. Of all the scientists who over the years have achieved some degree of celebrity, I can’t think of another one who so much both deserved and enjoyed the public attention.
Update: There are dozens of articles appearing discussing Hawking’s life and work. One you may not have seen which I enjoyed is from Nathan Myhrvold.
Update: Another piece by someone who worked with Hawking, Marika Taylor. It includes some discussion of his views on M-theory.
Update: Hawking has inspired some new theorizing from Niall Ferguson.