Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking breaks British publishing records on this day in 1992 when his book A Brief History of Time remains on the nonfiction bestseller list for three and a half years, selling more than 3 million copies in 22 languages.
A Brief History of Time explained the latest theories on the origins of the universe in language accessible to educated lay people. The book was made into an acclaimed documentary in 1992, which focused largely on Hawking’s own story. Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his 20s, Hawking was told he had only two years to live. Despite the sobering prognosis, Hawking pursued his studies in theoretical physics, married, and had a son. Eventually, his disease left him paralyzed except for his left hand. He was able to speak, although his speech was difficult to understand, until he underwent a tracheotomy in 1985 during a bout with pneumonia. Afterward, he relied on a mouse-controlled voice synthesizer, which improved the clarity of his speech. His familiar, synthesized voice can be heard in the Brief History of Time documentary, a popular Pink Floyd song, and an episode of The Simpsons.
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and numerous other honors, Hawking wrote several additional popular science books, including Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (1993) and The Grand Design (2010), which he cowrote with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow. He was known for his scientific contributions to cosmology and quantum gravity and was affiliated with the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, among other institutions. He died on March 14, 2018, in Cambridge, England.