Hawking Gets Personal

Michael D. Lemonick

The following article appeared in the September 27, 1993 issue of Time.

For the past hour, the attention of a group of wheelchair-bound teenagers in a Seattle auditorium has been completely focused on the man seated in front of them. Such self-control would be unusual for teens in any case; it's even more impressive considering that the speaker is a theoretical astro-physicist. Stephen Hawking has a few advantages, though. For one, the 51-year-old Cambridge University professor is probably the best-known scientist in the world. For another, Hawking is in a wheelchair too, the victim of a degenerative nerve disease that has left him as paralyzed as his youthful audience.

But what really has the kids' attention is that Hawking did a guest spot last season on Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a time-bending game of poker with his intellectual forebears, Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. The cameo appearance won him almost as much popular recognition as A Brief History of Time, the 1988 best seller that spent 53 weeks on the New York Times list, sold an astounding 5.5 million copies worldwide and spawned an award-winning movie. Not bad for a volume that was, despite its billing as an easy read, nearly impossible to get through.

Now Hawking's new book, Black Holes and Baby Universes (Bantam; $21.95), is en route to stores and getting nearly as big a buildup as the latest John Grisham thriller. Why, when his days are already overcrowded with scientific meetings, lecture tours and the occasional sit-down with disabled kids, did he take the time to write a new book? "I had to pay for my nurses," Hawking says (or, rather, since he can't speak, his computer-driven voice synthesizer intones, in a voice something like Lawrence Welk's).

The answer is typical Hawking - droll, irreverent and totally honest. He needs nursing care around the clock, and even the distinguished Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at Cambridge, a seat once held by Newton, doesn't pay enough to cover it. A victim of Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), Hawking can move only some facial muscles and one finger on his left hand, which he uses to pick out words on a computer touch-screen attached to his motorized wheelchair. He can search through the computer's dictionary by selecting the first letter or two of a word or by choosing from a menu of frequently used phrases and sentences.

Though Hawking argues that the public bought his first book largely because of the ideas it contained, his readers were probably just as interested in the man himself. "No one can resist the idea of a crippled genius," Hawking says, with an edge of displeasure. He is not, as some have claimed, the second coming of Einstein, a characterization Hawking denounces as "rubbish...mere media hype." But his work on black holes, especially, would be of Nobel caliber - except that the prize committee insists that theoretical work has to be verified by experiment or observation before it is rewarded. None of Hawking's theories will likely be proved during his lifetime, a fact that Hawking claims doesn't bother him. "It is better to go on and make new discoveries than to hope for a prize for work I did years ago." His current interest: trying to determine whether elementary particles that fall into black holes can form new, baby universes, forever cut off from ours.

Unlike A Brief History, the new book (a collection of essays, transcribed talks and new writings) contains plenty about Hawking himself. There are the requisite discussions of quantum physics and cosmology, of course. But those millions who bought yet couldn't penetrate A Brief History may be relieved to hear that there are also chapters on Hawking's early life, his marriage to fellow student Jane Wilde and his experiences as an ALS victim.

"Readers will learn, for example, that his father was a doctor who did research on tropical diseases, and his mother a secretary. The family was considered some what eccentric - they drove around in an old London taxi because they couldn't afford a new car. Hawking didn't concentrate much on his studies in college, and gave up completely for a while when his ALS was diagnosed. But his marriage, and the need to support a family, got him to start working hard for the first time in his life. "To my surprise," he writes, "I found I liked it," and his career took off.

The new book also addresses, at least in passing, a controversy stirred by A Brief History. Many readers interpreted portions of that book as an attempt to disprove the existence of God. Not so, says Hawking. "You don't need to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the universe, but that doesn't prove there is no God - only that he acts through the laws of physics." Other controversies are ignored. Three years ago, Hawking left his wife after more than two decades and moved in with Elaine Mason, one of his nurses. "I would rather not go into details of my private life," is all he will say.

The kids in the lecture hall have other things on their mind besides black holes and broken marriages. As Hawking finishes, they crowd around him, forming a semi-circle of wheelchairs, and begin pelting him with questions on topics closer to home: "How do you make a legal signature if you can't write?" "How do you feel about the Americans with Disabilities Act?" "What are Klingons really like?" As they wait for Hawking to tap out his answers, they can't stop grinning. Here's a famous scientist, a best-selling author, a Star Trek star - and he's disabled, just like them.