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May 1999
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The Man Behind the Scientist

by Gregg J. Donaldson

"I don't have time to do the things I can do, so it doesn't seem important to worry about the things I can't do."

Professor Stephen Hawking- Renowned English astrophysicist is regarded as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the 20th Century, visited Washington, D.C., as part of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, (GWSAE) The Nation's Capital Distinguished Speakers Series on January 25, 1999.

When one meets Professor Hawking, one is immediately struck with a sense of wonder then empathy, seeing the effects of ALS on his body, as he copes with daily life. His electric wheelchair, laptop computer and voice synthesizer are controlled by a toggle switch. As one gets used to his mechanical baritone computer voice, one simply gets transported from his physical boundaries into the brilliance of his mind.


Professor Hawking is as well known today as Albert Einstein. In fact, Hawking is sometimes referred to as the Albert Einstein of this generation. He came into prominence in 1974, when he proved black holes emit radiation, as well as for the no boundary proposal, he made with Jim Hartle of Santa Barbara, in 1983.

Stephen W. Hawking was in Oxford, England in 1942, but grew up in St. Albans, a town 20 miles north of London. After going to St. Albans School, he then went on to University College, Oxford. Stephen wanted to do Mathematics, but it wasn't offered at that time so he did Physics instead. After three years of not doing much work he was awarded a first class honours degree in Natural Science. He then went on to Cambridge University to study Cosmology and also gained his Ph.D. from there.

He first became a Research Fellow, and later a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) College. After leaving the Institute of Astronomy in 1973 he came to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and since 1979 has held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. A post once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

Besides his many scholarly works, articles and publications, Hawking has published two popular books; his best seller "A Brief History In Time," which to date has been translated into 33 languages and selling over nine million copies, as well as a later book "Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays."

Professor Hawking has 12 honorary degrees as well as numerous other awards, medals and honors. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

But in the afternoon event, also sponsored by GWSAE, Professor Hawking didn't speak to the crowd of 150 students with disabilities, as a scientist, but simply as a fellow man and father coping with his disability. He spoke to an audience largely made up of students from elementary schools to colleges, including George Washington University, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland. Hawking, who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, spoke with candor and humor giving a brief history of ALS, (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) and how it affects him. He has a wife, three children and one grandson named William.

The general causes of ALS are unknown, but scientists believe there are two kinds, one genetics, the other caused by toxins. The latter is what Hawking has. ALS is characterized by: general weakness and muscle wasting with cramps and muscle twitches common. Progression is very rapid. ALS first affects the legs, arms and/or throat muscles. ALS sually progresses rapidly with a 3 to 5 year average survival span. Hawking confirmed this saying, "Most people survive just two to three years. The disease is very progressive, within a year I was using a cane," he said.

He told the audience, "As a child, I wasn't particularly athletic and an average student. It wasn't until my third year at Oxford, however, I noticed that I seemed to be getting more clumsy, and I fell over once or twice for no apparent reason." He joked that when he first saw his doctor, his doctor told him 'to lay off the beer.' But it was not until he was at Cambridge, in the following year, that he blacked out and fell down a flight of stairs. His father (who was also a medical doctor), also noticed the lack of coordination, and took Hawking to the family doctor. He referred Hawking to a specialist, and shortly after his 21st birthday, went into hospital for tests.

Said Hawking: "I was in for two weeks, during which I had a wide variety of tests. They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with x-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn't tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an a-typical case. I gathered however, that they expected it to continue to get worse, and that there was nothing they could do, except give me vitamins. I could see that they didn't expect them to have much effect. I didn't feel like asking for more details, because they were obviously bad."

Hawking credits taking Vitamin B as helping to extend his life and somewhat slow down the affects of ALS on him. But he stated, "that doctors have tried that with other patients and it doesn't seem to have any effect on them." He also credits the love and support of his wife and family. Also "not knowing, how long you have to live, focuses the mind on the important things in life" He considers himself fortunate to have lived 30 years with ALS.

He also relayed his experience with pneumonia in 1985. I was visiting Switzerland at the time and I had to have a tracheostomy operation, taking my vocal chords out permanently. The doctors didn't hold out much hope for me, in fact they wanted to take me off life support which horrified my wife Jane. She didn't give up hope and had me taken back home.

The Technology He Uses:

The technology that allows Professor Hawking to communicate to the world is a laptop computer system which is mounted to his wheelchair was custom-designed for Hawking by the Intel Corporation. It comes complete with a wireless Internet connection, and allows him to control lights, doors, by radio remote controls and features text to voice synthesis software.

In fact, he joked with the audience saying, "I must be one of the most well connected people in the world, and 'I can truly say, I'm Intel Inside.'

TT asked Ms. Christy Willis Director of Disabled Student Services, for George Washington University, "What she thought of Hawking? "

She said, The thing I find most amazing about Professor Hawking, is how much he has accomplished and how he treats his disability as being secondary."

The Kennedy Center Evening

He also spoke to a packed house at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, later that evening for his lecture "The Universe In A Nutshell." Discussing in layman's terms his theories of the Universe, Time, and the human quest for discovery.

He began his talk by quoting Hamlet, who said: 'I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space.' As part of his introduction he said, "At the risk of incurring the fate of Prometheus, who stole fire from the ancient Gods for human use. I believe we can, should and try to understand the universe."

Crediting, disagreeing with, and advancing the theories of his predecessors like La~plass, Planck, and Einstein. One particular theme that I enjoyed hearing about was multiple histories and timelines. A favorite theme of the Star Trek Universe. (A favorite show of Hawking's and mine).

Hawking is also not afraid to explore and pose the big question of, Does the universe have a beginning? A question few scientists are willing to address because either they maintain it did not have a beginning, or does not belong in the realm of science, rather to metaphysics or religion. To this in his opinion he states: "This is not a position any true scientist should take. If the laws of science are suspended at the beginning of the universe, should they not fail at other times?"

He closed by saying of Hamlet, "I think what he meant was that although we humans are very limited physically, particularly in my own case, our minds are free to explore the whole universe--and to boldly go where Star Trek even fears to tread."


I had the pleasure of sitting next to Michael Hennessey and his parents, at both events. Michael is a 6th grader, age 11, from Fairfax Virginia, who wants to be a physics theorist like Professor Hawking. He has Cerebral Palsy and also uses a computer and pointer to talk. It was neat to see his face light up and understand his hero.

Notes: Professor Hawking's website: He will also be appearing on "The Simpsons," airing late April or May on FOX.

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