The Unification of Stephen Hawking

By Mark O'Brien

The opportunities available to the disabled reporter to practice his craft are scant and uninteresting. When The Fessenden Review asked this disabled journalist to leave his Berkeley apartment and trek to southern California to interview Elizabeth Bouvia, a disabled woman who demanded medical assistance to help her starve herself to death, I had to say no. I very much wanted to talk with her, but I would have had to rent a van with a wheelchair lift, find accommodations for myself, an attendant or two, and a 900 pound iron lung. I spend most of my time in a 900 pound iron lung because polio has shriveled my lungs. Such a dependence upon the iron lung greatly reduces my mobility, so I told the editor of The Fessenden Review that I had to refuse the assignment. Throwing out my Clark Kent fedora, I resumed my career as a small-time poet, freelance book reviewer, and author of an unfinished novel.

Four years ago, I reviewed a book called Stephen Hawking's Universe, a biography of an Englishman who was disabled by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in the 1960's while studying physics and mathematics at Cambridge University. I praised the deft manner in which the author, John Boslough, described Hawking's startling work in theoretical physics, but I expressed disappointment that he failed to say much about Hawking as a person. All Boslough could say on this point was that Hawking was the toughest man he had ever met.

I was fascinated with the idea that one of the world's leading physicists was disabled because the popular image of disabled people has us do nothing besides mope over being disabled. It seemed likely that Stephen Hawking would become, whether he wanted to or not, the most famous disabled person since the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Hawking had become well-known more through his work than his disability. Unlike Roosevelt, Hawking never sought to hide the fact of his disability. Where I had the sense that Roosevelt was what a disabled friend of mine had called "a closet crip," I felt no such reticence or shame emanating from Hawking. While not wishing to hide his disability, neither did Hawking seem to regard it as the only important thing in his life. If he was obsessed with anything, it was with the universe--its origin, workings, and destiny. In his own book, A Brief History of Time, Hawking says he is seeking nothing less than "the unification of physics," the reconciliation of quantum mechanics with relativity and an integration of the four forces (electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces) which would provide an explanation for all phenomena. Given the scope of his ambition and the brilliance of his intellect, it seems likely to me that he will achieve this goal and in the process avoid becoming fixated upon being disabled, a condition a friend of mine calls "being a full-time crip." But Hawking still has to deal with his disability, even if he is just a part-time crip. I wondered how Hawking dealt with becoming severely disabled. How did he get to be so tough? What was it like for him to have a wife and children? What has he done with the feelings of depression which disability usually brings?So when I learned that Hawking would give a series of lectures on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, I saw my chance. I live a few blocks south of campus, so travel would not present a problem. I phoned the university's public information office and was told that Dr. Hawking (everyone with the university called him Dr. Hawking) would give a press conference the following Tuesday.

I didn't attend Hawking's first lecture (or any of the others) because I felt too tired to get out of the iron lung on those days and because I felt I would have little chance of asking him for an interview in the post-lecture crush.

When the morning of the press conference came, I worried that I would not get the interview. Armed only with a cassette tape recorder and a manila envelope stuffed with a formal letter requesting an interview, my disability poems, my science poems, my autobiographical essay, my reviews of Stephen Hawking's Universe, and Hawking's new book, I hoped to persuade him to grant me an interview.

I had asked Miguel, my lunch attendant, to come at 10:30 to get me into my wheelchair and push me to the press conference. I worried that he might be late, as he often is, but this time he wasn't. When he lifted me, I screamed much less than usual (getting lifted always scares the sweet bejesus out of me, even if the lifter looks like an olympic basketball player), because my chief concern was to get to the press conference on time. Miguel took me out into the warm March day while I fretted about my lack of press credentials.

Gentle reader, all of those reporters you see on TV talking about their press credentials are working for some corporation, usually a huge one such as Time, ABC, or Rolling Stone. I,being a freelancer, which is to say an unemployed poet and novelist who occasionally deigns to work at journalism when prompted by a desire for thrills or money, had no press credentials at all. When I was a student in the UC Berkeley journalism school, I had been issued a little white card that shrilly insisted I was a bona fide, honest-to-pete reporter for something called the California News Service, a dummy organization invented by the journalism school for the sole purpose of issuing press credentials to its students. But it had been years since I dropped out of J-school and tossed out my CNS cards. I had asked the editor of The Fessenden Review to send me press credentials, but they were delayed in the mail. Now I approached the greatest story of my journalistic career with no more press credentials than a hyena. More reason for me to be anxious. What if they demanded proof that I was a reporter? I would sputter "Oh, yeah?" like Tommy Smothers. No, a better idea struck me. I would tell them to phone the editor of The Fessenden Review. But what if he weren't in? What if he was in his office, but the person checking my credentials had never heard of The Fessenden Review?

Such trepidations tumbled in my mind like dice as Miguel pushed me into the student union building, where the press conference was to be held in Heller Lounge. Acting as the navigator,for I knew the campus better than Miguel did, I confidently told him that it was on the top floor.

"I remember because it's where I rented my cap and gown for my graduation."

But there was nothing called Heller lounge up there. When Miguel told a man emerging from a room that we were looking for Dr. Hawking's press conference, the man said he was also going to it and led the way. Downstairs, we entered a long, vaguely defined area which I had always thought of as the student lounge. Miguel pushed me by students lounging, reading, or sprawling across the bright blue sofas in complete exhaustion. Near the end of the lounge, folding chairs had been set up in an open, glass-walled area, presumably as a special accommodation to the able-bodied journalists. On a long table in front of us all were press handouts and a vase of flowers in Cal colors, yellow and blue. No one asked me to produce anything to prove that I was a reporter. I concluded that if you look sufficiently disabled, people will judge you to be harmless.

We were early, so I asked Miguel to grab some handouts and get my cassette recorder out of the red backpack that hangs loosely from the back of my wheelchair like a turkey wattle. Then we waited. The inquisitive reporters looked at each other, at the handouts, at the flowers, and at the view through the tinted glass walls of Lower Sproul Plaza, a barren, concrete space that is afflicted most noons by bands of the heavy metal or acid-punk (or whatever they're called these days) persuasion screeching as though they are being vivisected. But now the bands and their tormentors had the good sense to be absent. In the stark silence, I heard the low buzzing of an electric wheelchair.

"Is that him?" I asked Miguel, who can look around easier than I can.

"No, it's someone else."

Finally, a tall bearded man started talking into the microphone.

"...Will you please welcome to the university Doctor Stephen W. Hawking."

Applause spattered the room like a sudden rainstorm. Then I saw him to my left, a slight figure moving slowly across the room in a brown, padded wheelchair. Wearing a crumpled hounds-tooth suit, he looked very English and very academic, happily fulfilling our preconceptions. His face, middle-aged and knobbly, reminded me of a pensive Alfred E. Neuman. Suddenly, his face blessed us with a smile as dazzling and casual as Jack Kennedy's. A beatle cut, greying, remained from his student days. After he parked his wheelchair by the table, the microphone was lowered and placed next to his voice synthesizer, a plastic and metal device that sits on the wheelchair's lap tray like a large, propped-up book.

"Doctor Hawking," began the first questioner, who proceeded to ask about a recently-discovered super-nova.

I wanted to ask my question early to get through my anxiety. I had decided to ask him what he would say to disabled people who were stuck in nursing homes or in a room in their parents' house. I wanted to ask him this because I had spent too many years of my life stuck in such frustrating, life-stopping places. That I have come to live in such a jazzy, juicy place as Berkeley astonishes me so much that I inspect the mailing labels on magazines to make sure that my name is two lines above BERKELEY, CA.

It took Dr. Hawking a couple of minutes to type his first answer, which came abruptly from the speech synthesizer in a deep American-sounding voice, impressively human though somewhat robotic around the edges.

I wanted to get my question in, but Dr. Hawking possesses no body language to indicate "next?" The other reporters beat me to it several times. During the long pauses occasioned by Dr.Hawking's voice synthesizer, photographers scuttled about like hyperactive lobsters, standing, kneeling, leaning, trying to get every angle on Dr. Hawking, whose movements were limited to his cool blue eyes and that smile. Although his answers were slow in coming, everyone present had their attention devoted to him. I wondered what the passers-by on the walkway outside the glass wall would make of the scene--thirty or forty able-bodied people expectantly looking at a small, thin man in a wheelchair who never moved his lips to speak.

A photographer knelt on the floor, blocking my view of Hawking. I asked her in a whisper to move, but my whisper was too soft and I feared that if I asked her in my normal tone of voice, I would break the eerie silence between questions and answers. I seemed unable to croak out a medium-sized request, so I asked Miguel to ask her to move, which she did. Now that I could see Hawking again, I decided I should ask my question before someone else came along to block my view. Shimmering with anxiety, I pondered the puniness of my question. Would Hawking be annoyed that my question would pull him away from the pristine glory of physics and into the sad, ancient swamp of disability? Looking steadily into his halcyon eyes, I pretended to have the courage to ask him my question.

"Doctor Hawking, what can you say to all the disabled people who are stuck in nursing homes or living with their parents or in some other untenable situation and who feel that their life is over, that they have no future?"

As I heard this long question unravel like an ill-mannered ball of yarn, Hawking continued to look at me and typed his answer into the voice synthesizer. I couldn't see his right hand, the one he used to type. I waited. All of us waited. Then the silence was cracked by the voice synthesizer's crisp, booming voice.

It can be very difficult. I know that I was very fortunate. All I can say is that one must do the best one can in the situation in which one finds oneself.

He continued to look at me as his answer was spoken, as though he missed the simultaneity of speech and eye contact. I thanked him, then the other reporters asked questions which veered away from physics, a subject very few of us understood, and toward God, a subject on which we all consider ourselves experts. Hawking told the attentive reporters that he did believe in God, but not in a personal God. At least, that's what I thought he said. I would be corrected later. The final question asked whether Dr. Hawking really wanted the riddle of the universe to be solved. Wouldn't discovering The Answer have the distressing effect of ending a grand quest?

I hope that we will find it, but not quite yet.

We laughed, even though we half-expected such a sly answer.

The press conference over, the able-bodied people got out of their folding chairs to cluster into knots of conversation, which is what able-bodied people do when they are not sure of what they should be doing. Miguel picked my tape recorder off the floor and put it in my backpack. I asked him to give my envelope to someone in Hawking's entourage, but Miguel asked whether I wouldn't rather have him give my envelope directly to Hawking. Suspended in indecision, I thought of how little space there was on the lap tray of Dr. Hawking's wheelchair, the possibility that he might be offended by such naked American chutzpah, and how unlikely it was that I would ever get this close to him again. After a long internal debate of a second and a half, I felt the cold, sharp gust of What the hell blast away my irresolution.

Miguel gave the envelope to Hawking, who then approached me.

Hello, said Hawking in his calm electronic voice.

"It's such an honor to meet you," I burbled in my tremulous meeting-a-celebrity voice. I explained the contents of the envelope, including the letter asking him for an interview. Rather than wait for him to read my letter, I asked him for an interview right there and then, while the able-bodied reporters towered around us like a circle of curious trees.

Yes. The week of April fourth.

"Good, good. That'll give me time to... I have my phone number on the letter, so you...you or one of your people can call me to set a time and place."

Yes.

Your people, my people. I was beginning to sound like a CEO.

He left to talk with others amidst the milling, mumbling crowd.

I got it, I got it! I thought. This'll be the biggest story of my journalistic career. Just think. I and The Fessenden Review will be quoted by the two dozen companies evoked in the American mind by the trendy and mellifluous word "media."

A balding man leaned down to me, his microphone hungering for my words.

"National Public Radio."

"Are you William Drummond?" I asked, giddy at the thought. Drummond taught at the UC Berkeley journalism school, he had worked for President Ford, as NPR's correspondent in Lebanon he had faced constant danger, and he had met Susan Stamberg, NPR's sultry-voiced, witty anchor. Oh my God, he knows Susan Stamberg!

"No, I'm not Bill Drummond," he said, interrupting my delirium. "Rick McCourt."

Now that was a stupid thing for me to say, I thought, chastising myself. Why didn't I just let him introduce himself? But he didn't seem to mind. I told him I had heard his science reports. So what if he hadn't met Susan Stamberg? Maybe he would someday.

Beside him stood a woman who didn't identify herself. She asked me whether seeing Dr. Hawking gave me hope. This struck me as an awfully stupid question. Hope for what? Could Dr. Hawking change my life, make me walk, get me a lover? I tried to think of a polite way to answer her.

"It's not that, so much, as, uh...he gives me a sense of 'hurray-for-our-side.'"

What was I saying? God knows. I just didn't want to get sucked into being cast as a Spokesperson for the Disabled in a dreary story headlined "Disabled Inspired by Dr. Hawking." Their interview of me lasted about two minutes. McCourt told me he'd phone me if NPR used his interview with me. Then they left. My celebrity status ended with thirteen minutes left to go.

"Let's go," I told Miguel, who pushed me through the sunny campus and down Telegraph Avenue back to my apartment.

After a week had passed without any word from Hawking, I grew anxious. He was a busy man in a foreign country and could easily have forgotten about me and my proposed interview. So when I heard that the university's Disabled Students Program was honoring Dr. Hawking with a barbecue, I decided to attend it in the hope of reminding him of the interview.

Miguel took me to the barbecue, which was held in the parking lot behind the old pinkish-red mansion that houses DSP. It was a hot Thursday, the day of Dr. Hawking's third and final lecture on the Berkeley campus. The parking lot was crowded with people in all kinds of wheelchairs, blind people, attendants, deaf people signing at feverish speed, the DSP staff, and reporters from KQED-TV and National Geographic. Heat bounced off of the three white buildings that surround the parking lot on three sides. The last thing I wanted was to have a hard, mean, crunchy hamburger pushed into my mouth. This being Berkeley, there was pasta salad, but the good vegetarians of Berkeley had devoured the pasta salad, confident that the pasta salad never said moo, never blinked large brown eyes, and never gave birth to mewling, puking baby pasta salads.

Where was Hawking?

God knew, having a better vantage point than mine, which was in my new and unsteady reclining wheelchair, reclined to almost flat, which put my head about three feet above the hot asphalt.

A man in a tall psychedelic wheelchair bumped into my recliner, causing it to tip backwards maybe an eighth of an inch. Convinced that my skull would be cracked open like an egg and that my brains would fry sunny-side-up on the asphalt, I screamed in falsetto panic. As my wheelchair steadied itself, everyone looked at me.

"Are you all right?" they asked me.

"Yeah."

Now certain in the knowledge that I was having a thoroughly terrible time, I told Miguel I wanted to leave.

"Can you see Hawking? Over there?"

He pointed and I saw him, surrounded by people. He was eating something and looking as though he were enjoying himself in spite of wearing a tweed suit in the Fourth of July heat.

"I'll try to get you over there to see him," Miguel said.

As Miguel knifed my wheelchair through the densely-packed crowd, I could see the circle around Hawking break. A DSP official tested the microphone, then said what a privilege it was to have Dr. Hawking present. She then presented the famous disabled physicist tokens of admiration, one of them a T-shirt that proclaimed:

I SURVIVED THE BARBECUE AT THE UC BERKELEY DISABLED STUDENTS PROGRAM APRIL 7th, 1988

Thinking that I deserved such a T-shirt more than Hawking did, even though he wore that tweed suit, I observed the brief ceremony, which concluded with the announcement that Dr. Hawking would autograph copies of his book at the other end of the parking lot.

A DSP staffer began singing into the microphone as Hawking zoomed by me, two feet to my right. I recognized his wife from her photo in Boslough's book. I had enough cash to buy the book, so Miguel and I waited in line, the sun glaring in my face and raising a bumper crop of skin cancer cells on my potato-pale Irish face. While we waited, Miguel brought one of Hawking's attendants, a tall Englishwoman with curly reddish hair, over to talk with me. When I told her that I wanted to interview Dr. Hawking that Saturday, she said she was terribly sorry, but they were leaving Berkeley the next day.

Was all this for nothing?, I asked myself.

"But I can't speak for him," she said. "You should ask him yourself."

With this slight encouragement in mind, I asked Dr. Hawking whether he could still give me an interview. Close up, he looked uncomfortable. Was it the heat or was it that I was bugging him? I was rehearsing my yes-i-understand speech when he said Yes. Half eleven in the lobby of my hotel.

Once again, I was startled by his willingness to talk with me.

The red-haired attendant pressed Hawking's right thumb into an inkpad, then into the inside cover of his book. I had his autograph..

That Saturday morning, I sat with Miguel in the lobby of the Durant Hotel, a stately green structure which flies an enormous American flag on its roof. Although I had never been in a hotel lobby before, I seemed to recognize the decor and ambience--overstuffed furniture, hushed conversation, men in suits vacuuming the carpet and polishing the brass. I sensed the quiet, genteel boredom prized by old money. Perhaps Miguel and I had entered one of the wormholes Hawking writes about, a rent in time-space that leads to unexpected destinations, in this case, the Algonquin Hotel, circa 1924. Was that Robert Benchley reading The Herald Tribune? No, it was just a Japanese businessman flipping through The San Francisco Chronicle.

Miguel and I looked about, checked my tape recorder, and drummed the fingers of our minds. The two clocks in the lobby went off every fifteen minutes, but had differing ideas of the exact time. Was one right and the other wrong? Were they both wrong?

I was trying to remember whether relativity applied to hotel lobbies when some men entered the lobby, one of them sitting in a tall and unmistakably psychedelic wheelchair. One of the men was red-haired and seemed to act as attendant to the man in the psychedelic wheelchair. The other two men, one British, the other American, were white-haired. The red-haired man sat atop the back of a profoundly upholstered chair, whereupon the group broke up into two groups to provide Miguel and me with polyphonic conversation. The white-haired American talked with the man in the psychedelic wheelchair about the remarkable distribution of ALS, Alzheimer's, nd Parkinson's disease on Guam, whose inhabitants come down with either Alzheimer's or Parkinson's on the one hand, or ALS on the other. It seemed that no one on Guam ever got ALS and one of the other diseases, and that disorders of the nervous system were so popular on Guam because of all the toxic dreck dumped there by the U.S. military. Through the other channel, I heard the red-haired man talk with the Briton about the bizarre nature of the universe as described by Dr. Hawking at one of his lectures. It struck me that anyone's description of the universe must sound bizarre upon a first hearing, but that Hawking's description seemed especially bizarre, what with black holes seeming to radiate gamma rays and the big bang not necessarily signifying any sort of Beginning. When the two conversations fugued together in my mind, I realized that they were both about aspects of Hawking's life.

Suddenly, I saw Hawking emerge from the elevator with the same attendant who had talked with me at the barbecue. She walked over to tell me she was terribly sorry, but Dr. Hawking would be meeting some people before he could see me. Did I mind? No. It was still only 11 or 11:15, depending on which clock you believed. Hawking disappeared down a hallway with his attendant and a group of people who had been sitting in the lobby.

I waited nervously, trying to imagine what I would do if the interview failed to yield me the information I would need to solve the riddle of Stephen Hawking. I knew that I would have only half an hour with him and that it would take him a minute or two to answer each of my questions. When the red-haired woman came to tell me that Dr. Hawking could see me, Miguel pushed me to the meeting as I felt a feeling of this is it, I'm going to hit the beach at Normandy.

Stephen Hawking, sitting beside a long wooden table in a posh conference room, was dressed in a striped T-shirt and brown pants. The walls of the room were paneled in wood and decorated with water colors of the campus sold by the Berkeley alumni association. As I inhaled the importance of the room and the situation, I noticed that the roseate calm of these paintings clashed with the confusion and clamor I had come to associate with the same scenes in real life. After Miguel set up my tape recorder, I asked him to leave. I was alone with Hawking and his attendant, who helped him drink a glass of tea and occasionally asked me questions as I waited for Hawking's answer to emerge from the voice synthesizer. He seemed preoccupied and would occasionally gag on the tea, which made him seem vulnerable. Telling him that I wanted to ask him personal questions in regard to his disability, I began.

TFR: It looks like you're becoming a celebrity. Your lectures have drawn overflow audiences. How do you feel about this?

HAWKING: It may help to sell my book, but I really want to get back to my scientific work.

TFR: From what I've read in Boslough's biography of you and other places, meeting Jane Wilde seems to have been an important point in your life. Can you tell me how you were feeling, physically and emotionally, when you met her?

HAWKING: A bit mixed up.

TFR: How did knowing her affect you?

HAWKING: I wouldn't have been able to do what I have done without her help.

TFR: Did you think women wouldn't be attracted to you after you were diagnosed as having ALS?

HAWKING: I didn't know.

TFR: Do you ever feel frustration, rage at being disabled?

HAWKING: No.

TFR: Does your work help you to deal with these feelings?

HAWKING: Yes. I have been lucky. I don't have anything to be angry about.

When I asked him how he relates to his children and whether he disciplined them, his attendant asked me whether I knew his children's ages.

"Twenty, seventeen, and seven," I said, relieved that I could recall this information.

"The youngest is nine," she said. "Actually, I don't think he disciplines them enough," she added, smiling at Hawking, who was busy typing his answer. "But that's just my opinion."

HAWKING: I get along well with them. I'm lucky to have such nice children.

TFR: I've read that you've been to Moscow ten times, to the U.S. twenty-five times to meet with other physicists. Do you find travel to be tiring?

HAWKING: Yes. I travel a lot. I'm going to Israel and to Russia.

TFR: Do you find different attitudes toward disability in different countries?

HAWKING: People help wherever I go.

TFR: Do you find this book publicizing tour boring?

HAWKING: I have been meeting colleagues.

TFR: Do you read outside of the reading you have to do in physics?

HAWKING: I don't get much time to read.

TFR: Did you derive your idea of an impersonal god from Buddhism, Vedanta, or some other tradition or have you developed your own religious ideas?

His attendant then told me that I had misunderstood what Dr. Hawking had said at his press conference, which was that he didn't believe in a personal god, not that he believed in an impersonal god.

HAWKING: It is better not to use the word "god" to describe what I believe because most people use the word to mean a being with whom one can have a personal relationship.

TFR: Do you sense a connection between how the universe operates and why it exists?

HAWKING: I don't. If I did, I would have solved the universe.

Had I succeeded in my quest to solve Stephen W. Hawking? I felt that I had not. His answers were brief and unrevealing. Being disabled myself, I found it difficult to believe that he felt he did not have "anything to be angry about." Had I asked him the wrong questions, questions he considered to be too intrusive? Was it that the slowness of the voice synthesizer tends to make him want to speak laconically? Or, what seems most likely, is he just a shy man wrapped up in his work and his family? Perhaps we demand too much of people when we ask them to turn their lives inside-out to satisfy our raging curiosity about celebrities. The one thing I learned was that Hawking's work succeeds in distracting him from a becoming obsessed with his disability, just as Roosevelt's work as Governor of New York and President of the United States rescued him from dark years of brooding and frustration. And was I so different with my writing? Didn't my constant work on book reviews, poems, journalism, and my novel take me out of and beyond my wretched body? If the unification of Stephen Hawking is ever to be achieved, it will teach us the necessity of love and work, not only for those of us who are trapped in unworkable bodies, but for everyone who is trapped in the stark, unyielding prison of time-space.

NOTES

1) Stephen Hawking's Universe, by John Boslough (William Morrow and Company, 1985).
2) A Brief History of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking (Bantam Books, 1988).


Copyright © November, 1988 Mark O'Brien <marko@well.com>. All Rights Reserved.

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