There is sad news this morning with the announcement that the legendary theoretical physicist and science popularized, Stephen Hawking, has passed away at the age of 76.

He was a rare figure in the scientific community in that he made significant contributions to research, and yet he was also a famous celebrity outside of the theoretical physics community due to his popular books and willingness to bring modern physics theories to the masses. 

As an academic, he was noted for being one of the first people to prove that black holes will radiate energy and therefore evaporate, while also developing and proving multiple theorems in the theory of gravity and general relativity, especially on topics related to singularities and the nature of spacetime. Hawking's work on black hole radiation, which now bears the name Hawking radiation in his honour, is arguably the first major prediction of quantum gravity even though we do not yet understand the theory itself.

As a science communicator, he is of course most famous for his book "A Brief History of Time" - a book which holds the questionable distinction of being the bestselling book that no one had read. Following the success of his book, Hawking became a cultural icon. Popular media loved the image of the brilliant genius trapped in a failing body, and for good or ill used him as the standard example of someone who had become so intelligent that they no longer required a physical form. Appearances on Star Trek and other television programs, combined with frequent mentions in everything from sitcoms to cartoons to comedy panel shows cemented his image as the most iconic scientist of his age.

On a more personal note, although I never had the chance to meet him, Stephen Hawking also had a great influence on my own life and career. (As an aside, I came very close to meeting him once but missed out by a strange combination of events. Hawking made a trip to Victoria and toured the university, which I was frequently visiting at the time as well. I actually would have been in the same part of the campus at the same time, but a sudden change in my father's vacation schedule meant that I couldn't be at the university that week and so missed out. But I digress). 

In the autumn of 1992 I was still in high school, and had planned out my career already. I had always loved science, and so I had decided that I would take chemistry and mathematics classes in high school, and then at university I would do a combined degree in chemistry, mathematics, and electrical engineering. My other passion at the time was robotics, and so I knew that after university I would either be a professional research chemist or a professor of chemistry, or I would work in the private sector doing research into robotics engineering. Physics was too boring - my only exposure to physics had been a couple of weeks in junior high school science classes in which I was told that physics was the study of pulleys and ramps. I couldn't imagine ever wanting to study pulleys and ramps in great detail when real science and engineering was so much more interesting. 

Then for Christmas of 1993 I received a copy of "A Brief History Of Time". As I said before, it was very fashionable at the time for every intellectual to own it, and I thought that meant actually reading it. Since I was interested in science and mathematics, a family member bought me the book for Christmas, and during the holiday break I started reading it. I was instantly hooked on what Hawking was writing about. This was not the tedium of simple machines, this was the kind of science I had always been dreaming of. Subatomic particle physics to large scale gravitational effects to cosmology - and covering everything from well proven theories to the speculative end of theoretical physics. This was what I wanted to do with my life.

A few weeks later I had to make the life changing decisions of what high school courses to take for my final two years. With my newfound passion for modern physics I enrolled in the high school physics classes, and I even spent the summer months with an old introductory physics textbook teaching myself college level kinematics. As soon as I finished Hawking's book, I went to the local bookshop and bought books by Born and Fermi and Feynman. By my final year of high school I was buying more advanced textbooks from the local university, and when the time came to enroll at university I immediately opted for a combined physics and mathematics degree. 

Most of my readers know the rest of the story. I went on to do research in both particle physics and cosmology, earned a PhD in theoretical physics, and have continued to working on a wide range of interesting research projects. But not many realize that I was never intending to be a physicist, and that the public school system had discouraged my interest in physics, until I found inspiration in the writings of wonderfully imaginative theoretical physicist name Stephen Hawking.

And so it is that I will be remembering Stephen Hawking not just for his pioneering work in the theory general relativity of black hole physics, but as the passionate scientist who inspired my own journey into the unknown. 

Rest in Peace Dr. Hawking, you have earned your place among the stars.