Chat With a Genius

Edward Hegstrom

The following article appeared in the July 2, 1993, issue of the Journal American. Reproduced with permission from the Journal American.

Never mind quantum physics, cosmology or the theory of relativity.

When the world's most renowned physicist met with a group of disabled students Thursday, he came to tell them about getting by with what the rest of the world calls a handicap.

"I am often asked: "What do you feel about being disabled?" " said Stephen Hawking, 51, a Cambridge professor and author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time. "The answer is: I try to live my life as normal."

Hawking, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, cannot walk or talk. But he uses a special computer to create sentences, and then vocalizes them through a synthesizer.

Hours before he delivered an important lecture Thursday night, Hawking met with about 25 high school students - a meeting he had requested. The students listened to Hawking's presentation on his disability, and then barraged the physicist with a wide range of questions. One student wanted to know what Hawking predicts for the future of mankind; another asked advice on making a legal signature when a disability makes it impossible to write.

"Could you illustrate for us an instance when your disability has been a strength?" asked Mike Gallagher, of Bellevue.

"It has meant that I have not had to lecture to undergraduate students," responded Hawking. The physicist said freedom from lecturing and serving on committees has left him with more time for research.

But Hawking also acknowledged that his motivation as a physicist came from the recognition of mortality his disease gave him.

Before the illness, Hawking said he was a typically lazy student at Oxford University - a school where working hard was viewed as a sign of stupidity. But at the age of 21, he suddenly found himself falling down for no apparent reason. A doctor diagnosed the disease as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

Hawking said that at first he felt sorry for himself. But while he was in the hospital, a young man he had befriended died of leukemia.

"It wasn't a pretty sight," Hawking recalled. "Clearly there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn't make me feel sick.

"Whenever I'm inclined to feel sorry for myself, I think of that boy."

Hawking left the hospital and began living his life with new zest. He pursued his brilliant career as a physicist, married, had two children.

At first, Hawking's wife helped him with his disease of the nervous system. Then he was forced to hire a graduate student to care for him in exchange for free room and board. By 1980, the physicist famous in part for his vanguard work on black holes had to rely on full-time nurses.

Five years later, a severe case of pneumonia left Hawking unable to speak. But he was determined to carry on. He had an assistant with a board and magnetized alphabet letters, raising his eyebrows when the assistant passed his hand over the right letter. Ever so laboriously, Hawking could craft sentences.

More recently, a California computer expert equipped Hawking with a software system that allows him to punch a few buttons to select words, thereby constructing sentences. He can then save the sentences to print them out later, or verbalize them with a synthesizer connected to his wheelchair.

The physicist has used the system to write his best-selling book and a dozen academic papers.

But Hawking, who has been widely praised as a genius by the popular press, says his reputation has been exaggerated. When a student asked how it feels being labeled as the smartest man on earth, Hawking responded:

"It is very embarrassing. It is rubbish - just media hype." Hawking supported the students' efforts to improve conditions for disabled people. He praised the Americans with Disabilities Act - a measure prohibiting discrimination - and lamented that his native England lacks similar laws. He also told the students that their disabilities should not interfere with their motivation to pursue higher education.

And Hawking repeatedly told the students to keep their spirits up. He noted that few people get much help if they are bitter or angry. "You have to be positive if you are to get much sympathy or help," he said.

But even Hawking does not sound uplifting when predicting the future. When Redmond high school student Ewan Day asked him what will happen to mankind in 50 or 100 years, Hawking said he had "great misgivings."

"I think it is possible we will destroy ourselves." If no, Hawking said he worries that artificial intelligence will make humans obsolete.

Some of the people invited to meet with Hawking are disabled students at Seattle University. The others are high school students who are part of a University of Washington program known as Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT).