DO-IT Participants Talk to the Hawk

Kevin Berg

On the afternoon of July 1, about 25 high school, college and junior high students with disabilities gathered at Seattle University to meet with world-renowned physicist, Dr. Stephen W. Hawking. A number of the students attend Seattle University, several were part of the DO-IT program and others represented schools from around the Seattle area.

Some of the disabilities represented at this event included those that limit physical mobility, those that limit vision or hearing and those created by medical problems such as diabetes.

When Hawking was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gerhig's disease) at the age of 21, the doctors told him he had about two years to live. Now, at age 51, he is doing intensive and exciting new research on black holes.

Hawking uses a computer and speech synthesizer to communicate and write papers.

The discussion time on July 1 was something Hawking had never really done before, but he said it was the kind of thing he had wanted to do. There was some anticipation as the students and press waited in a semi-circle for Hawking to arrive. The students' attendants sat slightly behind the semi-circle and talked among themselves.

When Hawking arrived at about 2 p.m., six hours before he had to lecture to a full auditorium at the Seattle Opera House, he started with a 10 minute background talk about himself which he had prepared beforehand and saved on a computer diskette.

After this short autobiography, the students asked him questions. While a few questions dealt with science and Hawking's education, the majority of the students asked for advice on how to overcome disabilities.

The main theme to all of his answers to these questions was the importance of having a positive attitude. He said that those with disabilities can not get anything accomplished without a positive outlook.

The man who is internationally proclaimed as "today's Einstein" claims to be overrated. Hawking said reports of his intelligence have been exaggerated and are only "media hype." "They want a disabled hero," he told the group, "Well, I'm disabled."

As the students waited for Hawking to compile words for his answers, they talked to each other about the questions they wanted to ask, discussed disability issues and got to know each other a bit.

Hawking's famous sense of humor was very apparent as he answered students' questions. When one student asked about Hawking's recent appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation in which one of the crew members played poker with holograms of Einstein, Newton and Hawking, Hawking answered, "I won the game, but haven't figured out how to cash in the winnings." The audience seemed to enjoy Hawking's sharp wit.

After two hours of discussion, Hawking, not seeming too eager to leave, had to say good-bye as he left for a meeting at Microsoft in Redmond.

Students and adults involved in the DO-IT program stayed for 15 minutes after the discussion in order to meet some of the people they communicate with over the Internet.