The Cambridge professor passed away at 76, his family said in a statement.
Professor Hawking had lived with the expectation of an early death for much of his life. When he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 21, it was expected to take him in just a few years – but he lived for more than 50, continuing to reveal the universe’s darkest secrets and becoming a medical miracle at the same time.
Professor Hawking said that living with the disease and the prognosis that came with it had given him a philosophical approach to his own death. But there was always plenty more he wanted to get out of the way before it happened.
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he told The Guardian in 2011.
In the same interview, Professor Hawking dismissed the comforts of belief in the afterlife, and said that he expected nothing to greet him after he died.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But he said that there was no need for there to be life after death to make people behave well while they were alive. “We should seek the greatest value of our action,” he said, when asked how we should live.
Just the simple fact of being alive at all was unlikely, given that it relied on tiny changes in the very early universe that spawned the world around us today. “Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in,” he said.
Stephen Hawking: a life in pictures
Professor Hawking has long been a critic of ideas of the afterlife or an all-powerful god. He said it was natural to believe in the divine before we understand science – but that science had now provided a better explanation.
Before then, some religious advocates had used his own work as a suggestion of the belief in a god. Professor Hawking closed his famous A Brief History Of Time by writing “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God”.
But Professor Hawking made clear, not least in his 2010 book The Grand Design, that he meant that comment only metaphorically. In that book and elsewhere, he argued that it wasn’t necessary for a creator to have begun the universe, putting him in direct contradiction of many of the people who had made use of that quote.
“What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn’t. I’m an atheist,” he told El Mundo.