Hawking lost his voice, not mind

Darrell Glover

The following article appeared in the April 15, 1996 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, copyright © 1996. Reprinted by permission.

Expert on the black holes in space lights up world for 30 disabled students

Stephen Hawking, world-renowned cosmologist widely recognized for his work on black holes in the universe, yesterday dazzled a group of disabled students at the Pacific Science Center.

Hawking, author of the best seller "A Brief History of Time," told about 30 students how the disease ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, overtook his body, but not his mind.

The progressive and degenerative nerve disease, previously known as Lou Gehrig's disease, primarily affects the muscles and has rendered Hawking incapable of speech and most independent movement.

Sitting in his motorized wheelchair, Hawking, 54, communicated with the students through his computerized voice synthesizer. With a glint in his eye, Hawking interspersed humor into his brief talk.

He also used dashes of levity during a lecture last night at the Opera House titled "Space and Time Warps: Is Time Travel Possible?" To illustrate the need to travel faster than the speed of light to conquer time travel, he offered a limerick:

There was a young lady of Wight,
Who traveled much faster than light,
She departed one day
In a relative way,
And arrived on the previous night.

Hawking was invited to Seattle to give the first Linus Pauling Memorial Lecture, named after two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. In his talk, he didn't rule out travel into the past through space, although some might see that as science fiction.

"But today's science fiction is often tomorrow's' science fact," he said.

Hawking also emphasized possibilities as he spoke of his life to the disabled students.

He said he had a fairly normal childhood and wasn't athletic, but "my handwriting was the despair of my teachers."

In his last year in college, Hawking said, he began to have mobility problems and had fallen down some stair, but a doctor told him to "lay off the beer."

But just after his 21st birthday, Hawking said he was diagnosed with ALS. Laughter erupted from the students when Hawking said, "I may be mentally disabled as well, but I'm too far gone to recognize it."

Hawking said his speech synthesizer is 10 years old, but he continues to use it because it sounds more human than modern ones and he identifies with it.

"No one wants to sound like a machine or Mickey Mouse," joked Hawking, who manages to speak 10 to 15 words a minute through the computerized synthesizer, he said.

The event was co-sponsored by DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington.

Scott Palm, a student at Shoreline Community College who suffers from cerebral palsy, talked machine to machine with Hawking. Palm asked Hawking through his digitized speech machine whether he saw himself as a role model for the disabled.

Hawking said he certainly didn't intend to be a role model, but "I'm glad if I encourage others."

Brandon Arnessen, 10, a fifth-grader who is interested in science, asked Hawking if there were an end to black holes. Hawking replied that in a black hole, space and time come to an end at what is called a singularity.

"If you run into a singularity, you would be torn apart and made into spaghetti," he said.

Suzanna Sweeny Martini, 12 a sixth grader, asked how Hawking got to "Know about all this stuff."

"I read a few books and papers, but a lot of it I had to figure out myself," Hawking responded.

Quadriplegic Todd Stabelfeldt, 17 a college freshman, asked if Hawking was married and if he had any children.

"I was married in 1965 and had three children," Hawking said adding that his oldest, Robert, works for Microsoft.

Matt Lewandowski, an 11th-grader who is deaf asked through an interpreter whether Hawking had ever communicated with a deaf person.

"My mother is very deaf," Hawking said. "She doesn't understand my voice but can read what I am saying on the (computer) screen."

Another student asked what Hawking did for fun. "that is a state secret," Hawking replied with a smile.