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Scientist Stephen Hawking Remembered For His Excitement And Dedication To His Work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Few physicists are household names, and even fewer have been on TV shows like "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Stephen Hawking.

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Oh, Dr. Hawking, we had such a beautiful dream. What went wrong?

STEPHEN HAWKING: (As himself) Don't feel bad, Lisa. Sometimes the smartest of us can be the most childish.

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Even you?

HAWKING: (As himself) No, not me.

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) I guess everyone has a different vision for the perfect world.

HAWKING: (As himself) You read that off my screen.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. His three adult children described their father this way. Quote, "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.'"

Part of Hawking's legacy is that he lived with ALS, which kept him in a wheelchair for decades. Andrew Strominger worked closely with Stephen Hawking and joins us now from Harvard. Welcome.

ANDREW STROMINGER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Millions of people have read his books and watched his speeches. What was he like to work with on a daily basis?

STROMINGER: He was very inspiring. And I've known him for a long time, and we've had many scientific exchanges on all kinds of topics. But most recently, we're in a full-time collaboration. We're meeting a few times a year. Of course I'm heartbroken that this has happened and that of course the work will go on. But it will have to be without him.

SHAPIRO: You say he was inspiring to work with. It's one thing to be inspiring in a TED Talk. It's another thing to be inspiring on a Thursday afternoon in the lab. I mean, (laughter) how did that come across?

STROMINGER: You know, there are many people in our field who are just very, very brilliant. And there are many with encyclopedic knowledges. He has both of those. He has an incredible intimate knowledge of Einstein's theory of general relativity. I felt that somehow he was a partner in seeking the truth about the universe.

You know, he didn't need more citations. He didn't more fame (laughter). He could've - you know, he would turn down, you know, a famous prize in Germany in order to spend a few more hours working on physics. And it was what he loved, so it was very inspiring.

SHAPIRO: Everybody faces adversity. ALS put him in a position of facing more adversity than many. Did you learn anything from him about just overcoming challenges outside of science and physics?

STROMINGER: You know, the medical routine that he had to go through on a daily basis - the various procedures he would have to have, even in the middle of a seminar - you know, he might have to leave the room. Or in the middle of a conversation, you'd be talking to him, and all the sudden the nurses would - you know, he would send me an email with just - it takes him a long time to type an email. You know, one sentence is an hour. It would be straight to the physics - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (ph), you know? He became a master at condensing ideas into as few words as is possible.

I am feeling indescribably sad about, you know - and I'm thinking back now on all the things we did together, from strange train rides in Wales to sketchy bars in Brussels to - some of them I can't even tell you about. You know, and he was in a wheelchair with a battalion of nurses around him all the time, but the guy was fun. Not that he didn't suffer, but the joie de vivre never left him. It never left him.

SHAPIRO: Professor Strominger, thanks so much for remembering your friend and colleague Stephen Hawking with us.

STROMINGER: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Strominger directs Harvard's Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.