The Smartest Person In the World Refuses To Be Trapped By Fate

Lisa Kremer

The following article is reprinted with permission from the July 2, 1993 issue of the Morning News Tribune.

Stephen Hawking at Seattle University in 1993
Stephen Hawking called his guest spot on Star Trek: The Next Generation fun but "not to be taken seriously."

World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking sat slack in his wheelchair Thursday, using finger controls to nimbly move to face each questioner.

He squeezed his hand almost imperceptibly, quickly picking words on a computer screen and building sentences that answered questions from students and fans:

-Being called a genius is "embarrassing."

-Guest-starring on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was "great fun but not to be taken seriously."

-"Nowadays, muscle power is obsolete. Machines can provide that. What we need is mind power, and disabled people are as good at that as anyone else."

Hawking, 51, gained fame in 1988 with the publication of "A Brief History of Time." The book later was made into a movie of the same name. He holds the professorship at Cambridge University once held by Sir Isaac Newton and did ground-breaking research on the theory of black holes.

Rather than lecture on theories of astro-physics, the Cambridge University professor gave a glimpse of the day-to-day realities of his life - a life with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease has cost him his voice and the ability to move all but a few muscles.

For the audience at Seattle University, the glimpse into his personal life was appreciated. More that 24 disabled students, along with parents, friends and reporters, gathered for two hours with Hawking before he lectured to a sold-out crowd downtown.

Students react to Stephen Hawking
Students Aleysa Reed, Mitch Weddle, Waikin Chiu, and Anna Schneider enjoy Hawking's address Thursday at Seattle University.

"An inspiration to me is what he is," said Mitch Weddle, a 16-year-old Spokane resident who wants to study genetics. Weddle watched Hawking from a cot where he lay in a brace, recovering form spine surgery.

A California programmer designed the computer Hawking uses. His hand curled around a small flat black pad, which he squeezed. On a screen facing him, Hawking picked out words and built sentences and then chose an icon that instructed the synthesizer to vocalize the sentence.

"One's voice is very important," he said in the synthesizer's metallic tones. "If you have a slurred voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient."

Hawking said he likes the synthesizer because it gives his sentences inflection.

"The only trouble is, it gives me an American accent," he said.

Using the synthesizer, Hawking spoke about how he became aware he had ALS. As the disease progressively ravaged his body, Hawking made adjustments to his life that were more and more intrusive.

The ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - killed nerves in his brain and spinal cord that control muscles. That led to weakness and paralysis.

In the earlier stages of the disease, he couldn't walk far, so he needed an apartment near the Cambridge campus. Finding a convenient flat was difficult, he said, and university administrators were uncooperative.

A few years and some productive research later, Hawking's disease had progressed to the point that he couldn't negotiate stairs. People were more helpful finding a better flat then, he said.

He needed more and more assistance, from helpful students and then part-time nurses and finally full-time nursing care.

Then, after a bout with pneumonia in 1985, Hawking had a tracheotomy. He couldn't speak and could communicate only by raising his eyebrows.

At a speed of about 15 words a minute, Hawking carefully answered the students' questions.

Several asked how Hawking coped with the depression that sometimes accompanies severe disabilities.

"I was a bit depressed," Hawking said, "but I soon realized that the rest of the world won't want to know if you are bitter or angry. You have to be positive if you are to get much sympathy or help."

Another student asked what Hawking thinks of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hawking spent several minutes choosing his words as the audience murmured to each other. Then his synthesizer came to life.

"I think disabled people need all the help they can get," he said. "It is far too easy for companies to discriminate against the disabled like they used to discriminate on grounds of race or sex. I just wish we had similar laws in Britain."

Kevin Berg, a freshman at Seattle Pacific University, asked, "How does it feel to be labeled the smartest person in the world?"

Hawking rapidly picked out words. He spelled out "media" and "hype," which were not included in his computer's library of 3,000 words.

"It is very embarrassing," was his response. "It is rubbish, just media hype. They just want a hero, and I fill the role model of a disabled genius. At least, I am disabled, but I am no genius."