A Brief Visit in Time

Bill Dietrich

The following article, reprinted with permission, appeared in the April 15, 1996 issue of the Seattle Times.

In this MTV age of glitz and instant gratification, 2,500 people filled the Seattle Opera House last night to patiently listen to the halting, artificial voice of a husk of a man fill its cavernous stage with genius.

They came not just to hear British physicist Stephen Hawking, folded like a broken bird in his wheelchair, talk about our dubious prospects for time travel.

Rather, it was a chance to experience with the famed author of "A Brief History of Time" how being disabled need not limit the ability of the human mind to roam the universe.

The scientist's tilted head looked enormous on his stationary, withered body: his neck narrow, ears large, skin tight. And yet, his essence remained: brain, soul and dark, intelligent eyes; an almost luminous presence.

Hawking, who has the nerve disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) has plenty of physical aid to make appearances so far from his home in Cambridge, England.

The 54-year-old traveled to Seattle with two nurses, his wife, his stepson, an assistant and a secretary.

The transformers and chargers for the batteries on his 300-pound wheelchair - which features a computer, an opener for automatic doors and a cellular phone - contributed to the group's 22 pieces of luggage.

Hawking is, arguably, part machine. Able to see, swallow and smile, he is otherwise limited to triggering a wheelchair button with one hand.

He selects words on a computer screen and uses a voice synthesizer to speak. A bout with pneumonia in 1985 left his throat pierced by a tracheotomy.

But he met with young people with disabilities earlier in the day at Pacific Science Center to give them encouragement.

And his evening audience was given no chance to exhibit sadness or unease when he rolled on stage to the stirring music of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

Hawking got them laughing with jokes about his former student Nathan Myhrvold, now a Microsoft vice president and futurist who introduced the physicist.

And Hawking's robotic voice, each sentence triggered by a tap of his button, kept people rapt for about 40 minutes as he explained in simple terms space-time, space warps, and the prospects and paradoxes of time travel.

If time travel is possible, where are our visitors from the future? he asked rhetorically. "It's hard not to believe someone wouldn't show off and tell us poor benighted peasants the secret of time travel."

Perhaps UFOs are from the future and a government conspiracy is hoarding their secrets? "If the government is hiding something, it is doing a poor job of extracting useful information," Hawking suggested, the synthesizer unable to match his wry wit with its tone.

Theory that may unify relativity and quantum mechanics may yet make the dreams of science fiction a reality, he allowed. So perhaps, "There is a Chronology Protection Agency at work" from the future, he speculated.

Hawking appeared here and is speaking at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Portland's Chiles Center to help raise money for the rehabilitation of the boyhood home of two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling in Portland.

Portland's Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy hopes to turn the home into a museum and conference center.

Terry Bristol, the Institute's president, said acquisition of the derelict house cost $250,000 and renovation bids are $540,000.

Meanwhile, Hawking shows no signs of slowing down nearly three decades after doctors told him he would soon die.

Tom Kendall, Hawking's assistant, said the scientist appears for work at Cambridge University about 11 a.m. each day and works into the evening conferring with students, correcting papers, attending lectures and writing. He said the physicist's health has been fairly stable since the 1985 pneumonia episode.

"When he's in a fun mood, he can be absolutely wonderful," Kendall said. "He can be cruel, too, but he has a sense of humor and is willing for people to take care of him." Sometimes the disease is painful for Hawking, he added.

The physicist was gracious when meeting this reporter and fielded several audience questions after his talk, taking a few minutes to compose sometimes clever answers on his synthesizer while the audience chatted.

Finally, he was asked about the existence and purposes of God. "I have learned not to answer God questions," he tapped out. "It only causes trouble."

And then to rising applause, which brought to his lips the tug of a smile, he wheeled away.


Official Stephen Hawking website

Copyright © 1996 The Seattle Times Company