His family released a statement in the early hours of Wednesday morning confirming his death at his home in Cambridge.
Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world.
“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 for ever.”
For fellow scientists and loved ones, it was Hawking’s intuition and wicked sense of humor that marked him out as much as the fierce intellect which, coupled with his illness, came to symbolize the unbounded possibilities of the human mind.
Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21. Doctors expected him to live for only two more years. But Hawking had a form of the disease that progressed more slowly than usual. He survived for more than half a century.
Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first and second class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first.
Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
Some of his most outspoken comments offended the religious. In his 2010 book, Grand Design, he declared that God was not needed to set the universe going, and in an interview with the Guardian a year later, dismissed the comforts of religious belief.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he said.
He spoke also of death, an eventuality that sat on a more distant horizon than doctors thought. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he said.