By the end, Stephen Hawking had become an icon, an Internet meme, popping up on "The Simpsons" and "The Big Bang Theory." His "voice," filtered through an electronic synthesizer, was as familiar as Donald Trump's.
Hawking's dense, mathematical work in theoretical physics revolutionized our view of the universe and came close to bringing together the mystifying worlds of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Far beyond that, however, his life was an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit.
In 1964, just as he was about to marry, Hawking received a diagnosis of a motor neurone disease, a nerve-killing condition that deprives sufferers of the ability to move or even to breathe. Doctors at the time gave him two to three years to live.
Hawking's response — after what he described as a rather diffident life — was to focus on the problems of his field, revolutionizing cosmology. He did not predict or discover black holes, but he found evidence that these massive gravitational powerhouses "leaked" — that they gave off matter as well as swallowing anything in their gravitational trap.
Confined to a wheelchair, communicating via a keyboard, he patiently worked and wrote, producing academic papers and books for general readers. He was married (twice) and raised a family.
"It shows," he was quoted as saying, "that one need not lose hope."
Hawking rejected orthodox Christianity, but believed in a "grand design" to the universe that humans could comprehend.
He had problems with ordinary concepts of divinity, though he was a lifetime member of the Vatican's Academy of Sciences and concluded "A Brief History of Time" with the comment: "If we find the answer to that (why the universe exists), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God."
Which reminds us of Joan Didion's essay, "James Pike, American." Didion cited the controversial Episcopal bishop's decision to have images of secular luminaries portrayed in a new stained-glass window at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.
When it was learned Sigmund Freud might be included, one of the faithful is reported to have complained, "He didn't believe in God!"
To which Pike smiled and replied, "He does now."
Hawking educated and inspired us with his bestseller "A Brief History of Time." Hearing of his death Wednesday at age 76, we lamented that his life — his time — was too brief.
But as the eminent British astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees said of his colleague: "What a triumph his life has been."
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS