London, Mar 14 (PTI) Stephen Hawking, the legendary British theoretical physicist who explored the mysteries of the universe from his wheelchair and went on to become an inspiring figure globally, died today at his home in Cambridge.

His family said that Hawking, 76, died peacefully in his home near Cambridge University, where he did much of his ground-breaking work on black holes and relativity.

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement.

“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 humour inspired people across the world,” the statement said.

“He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever,” it added.

British Prime Minister Theresa May led tributes to the UK’s famous scientist as “one of the greatest scientists of his generation” whose legacy will not be forgotten.

“Professor Stephen Hawking was a brilliant and extraordinary mind His courage, humour and determination to get the most from life was an inspiration,” she said.

She had been at the receiving end of that sense of humour when Hawking left her speechless over Brexit.

“I deal with tough mathematical questions every day, but please don’t ask me to help with Brexit,” Hawking told her after she presented him with the 2016 Pride of Britain Award soon after the referendum in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).

Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on January 8 the 300th anniversary of the death of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.

Hawking suffered from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neurodegenerative disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is usually fatal within a few years. He was diagnosed in 1963, when he was 21, and doctors initially only gave him a few years to live.

But he went on to study at Cambridge and became one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein.

The disease left Hawking wheelchair-bound and paralysed. He was able to move only a few fingers on one hand and was completely dependent on others or on technology for virtually everything — bathing, dressing, eating, even speech.

Known for his unique way of speaking while living his life in a wheelchair, Hawking became an emblem of human determination and curiosity.

Hawking’s first major breakthrough came in 1970, when he and Roger Penrose applied the mathematics of black holes to the entire universe and showed that a singularity, a region of infinite curvature in space-time, lay in our distant past: the point from which came the big bang.

His seminal contributions continued through the 1980s. The theory of cosmic inflation holds that the fledgling universe went through a period of terrific expansion.

In 1982, Hawking was among the first to show how quantum fluctuations tiny variations in the distribution of matter might give rise through inflation to the spread of galaxies in the universe.

But it was ‘A Brief History of Time’ that rocketed Hawking to stardom. Published for the first time in 1988, the title made the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ after it stayed on ‘The Sunday Times’ bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks. It sold 10 million copies and was translated into 40 different languages.

Hawking won the Albert Einstein Award, the Wolf Prize, the Copley Medal, and the Fundamental Physics Prize. The Nobel prize, however, eluded him.

Despite being a British citizen he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’ highest civilian honor, in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

In his 2013 memoir, he described how he felt when first diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

“I felt it was very unfair why should this happen to me. At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realise the potential I felt I had. But now, 50 years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life,” he wrote.

He went on to become the subject of the 2014 film ‘The Theory Of Everything’, which starred Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his portrayal as the physicist in the film, said in a statement: “We have lost a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.” Social media was instantly abuzz with tributes to the world-renowned astrophysicist, including a message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “we lost a great one today”, adding: “Stephen Hawking will be remembered for his incredible contributions to science making complex theories and concepts more accessible to the masses.” Hawking once said: “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” He leaves behind three children and three grandchildren, according to his website.

A book of condolence will be set up at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where Hawking was a Fellow.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Toope, said the Fellow was a “unique individual” who would be remembered with “warmth and affection”.

Toope said: “His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularisation of science and mathematics have left an indelible legacy. His character was an inspiration to millions.”

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.