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In "A Brief History of Time", Hawking "made some rather perceptive remarks to the effect that physics can not even in principle explain why there is an actually existing universe", Barr said.

What he produced was a masterwork of popular science, one that guided a generation of enthusiasts through the esoteric world of anti-particles, quarks and quantum theory. "I think that it's important for scientists to explain their work, particularly in cosmology", he explained to The Guardian on why he was writing "A Briefer History of Time".

Hawking was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease which was to leave him nearly completely paralyzed.

Hawking had lived with a form of motor neurone disease for over 50 years, despite being told he would likely only live a few years after his diagnosis at the age of 22.

A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesizer.

By the time he died Wednesday at 76, Hawking was among the most recognizable faces in science, on par with Albert Einstein.

In a statement released on Wednesday (local time), Prof Hawking's family announced he had "died peacefully" at his Cambridge home early in the morning. But Einstein's Nobel wasn't for his famed theory of general relativity.

"If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God". He added that with this he came to the realization that there is no heaven or afterlife and therefore we should appreciate the grand design of the universe in this one life. He was given two years to live but his subsequent longevity not only defied medical logic, it translated into ground-breaking theories on the physics of our cosmos.

He followed up "A Brief History of Time" in 2001 with the sequel, "The Universe in a Nutshell", which updated readers on concepts like supergravity, naked singularities and the possibility of an 11-dimensional universe.

Hawking was known for rejecting the explanation of that a Creator - or God - created the universe. "He was asking questions about the experiments we have underground". "The wheelchair gives me away". "But it bothers me". But what made him special was his grounded attitude and sense of humour.

The first person he remembers seeing on television who moved around like him was Stephen Hawking.

Some colleagues credited that celebrity with generating new enthusiasm for science.

One of Hawking's legacies will be that he demonstrated how even severe disabilities need not stop someone from achieving lofty goals.

"Stephen really is one of the giants in the world of physics", said Alan Guth, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.