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Stephen Hawking, the prodigious British theoretical cosmologist who became an international celebrity, died at his home in Cambridge, U.K., early today, at the age of 76. Hawking, who spent his entire career at the University of Cambridge, suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease with which he was diagnosed in his 20s. The disease confined Hawking to a wheelchair most of his adult life and eventually rendered him capable of speaking only through a computer-controlled voice synthesizer. Nevertheless, Hawking made seminal contributions to astrophysics, particularly in the study of black holes, veritable holes in the fabric of the universe.
“Stephen was far from being the archetype unworldy or nerdish scientist—his personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps,” Martin Rees, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge, and the United Kingdom’s astronomer royal, said in a statement. “He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions.”
Hawking - Name - Holes - Fields - Stars
Scientifically, Hawking’s name will forever be tied to black holes, the ultraintense gravitational fields left behind when massive stars collapse under their own gravity into infinitesimal points. Within a certain distance of the point, which defines the black hole’s event horizon, gravity grows so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. That fact suggested that the bizarre objects would be completely black.
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However, in 1974 Hawking argued that black holes would radiate energy after all. Physicists had come to understand that, thanks to quantum uncertainty, the vacuum of empty space constantly roils with particle-antiparticle pairs flitting in and out of existence too quickly to be directly detected. Hawking realized that if such a pair popped into existence on the event horizon of...
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