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    Why Stephen Hawking made a difference

    ZERO G/AFP/Getty Images
    Hawking was 65 when he took a zero-gravity flight over the Atlantic Ocean. "It was amazing ... I could have gone on and on," Hawking said.

    Here are some brief highlights of the life of Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who died early Wednesday in England at the age of 76.

    A noted physicist

    A theoretical physicist, Hawking’s most famous breakthrough came when he found that black holes are not really black, but “have a temperature, an entropy, and produce radiation just like any other thermodynamic body.” Hawking was hailed for his work, which brought together quantum mechanics and relativity (the two greatest achievements of 20th-century physics) and thermodynamics, a field of 19th-century physics.

    He did not think small. “My goal is simple,” he once said. “It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

    A cultural icon

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    Hawking was a bestselling author and cultural icon. His book, “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” published in 1988, has sold more than 10 million copies. Other popular books followed. He’s also been the subject of a documentary by Errol Morris, a 2014 feature film, “The Theory of Everything,” and delivered a TED talk.

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    Once dubbed “Einstein” by his friends, he became a pop symbol of genius (though he said he rejected the Einstein comparison). He appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” on “The Big Bang Theory,” and in cartoon form on “The Simpsons.” Pink Floyd used his voice in a song.

    An indomitable character

    Hawking forged ahead despite being stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in his 20s. He learned he had ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1963, and was given only a few years to live. His disease would progress over the decades to the point he would eventually only be able to move his eyes and flex a finger. But he went on to make discoveries and gain fame, while marrying twice, fathering three children, and traveling the world.

    He had a mischievous, irreverent streak that, in later years, would cause him to run his wheelchair over the toes of of someone who had made an annoying statement.

    At the age of 60, he went up in hot-air ballon. At the age of 65, in April 2007, he took part in a zero-gravity flight aboard a specially-equipped jet. “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit,” he said.

    Material from The New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.