Stephen Hawking: Miracle mind inside a miracle body

Stephen Hawking's wife Elaine adjusts the astrophysicist's headset at a conference. Picture: Getty
Stephen Hawking's wife Elaine adjusts the astrophysicist's headset at a conference. Picture: Getty
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STEPHEN Hawking has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe, but he has left one mystery unsolved: how he has managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease.

The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was a 21-year-old at Cambridge University.

Most people die within a few years of the diagnosis. Tomorrow, Prof Hawking will turn 70.

“I don’t know of anyone who has survived this long,” said Ammar Al-Chalabi, director of the Motor Neurone Disease Care and Research Centre at King’s College London.

Prof Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than ten million copies worldwide. His subsequent theories have revolutionised modern understanding of concepts such as black holes and the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.

To mark his birthday tomorrow, Cambridge University is holding a public symposium on “The State of the Universe”, featuring talks from 27 leading scientists, including Prof Hawking himself. For 30 years he held a mathematics post at the university previously held by Sir Isaac Newton.

He retired from that position in 2009 and is now director of research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Prof Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralysed and in a wheelchair since 1970. He now communicates only by twitching his right cheek.

Since catching pneumonia in 1985, Prof Hawking needs round-the-clock care and relies on a computer and voice synthesiser to speak.

A tiny infrared sensor sits on his glasses, hooked up to a computer. The sensor detects Prof Hawking’s cheek pulses, which select words displayed on a computer screen. The chosen words are then spoken by the voice synthesiser.

It can take up to ten minutes for Prof Hawking to formulate a single sentence.

“The only trouble is [the voice synthesiser] gives me an American accent,” he wrote on his website.

It took him four years to write his last book, The Grand Design, missing his publisher’s original deadline.

His personal assistant, Judith Croasdell, described her boss as remarkably patient. “The way he communicates can seem frustratingly slow to most people, but he doesn’t let that impede his thinking,” she said.

After a brief hospital stay, he told her he spent the time thinking about black holes.

Prof Hawking typically comes into the office after a big breakfast and reading the news, Ms Croasdell said. “He’s not an early morning person, but he does stay quite late,” she added.

Prof Hawking’s rooftop university office is crammed with memorabilia: family photos, a miniature Nasa shuttle and a signed picture of himself with President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. On top of physics books sits a disability access guide for the university.

Prof Hawking’s fame has led to guest appearances on some of his favourite television shows, including The Simpsons and Star Trek. His animated likeness from The Simpsons has even been turned into an action figure – one of which sits proudly on his office desk.

There’s also a Homer Simpson clock that Prof Hawking is known to glare at when visitors are late for an appointment.

“He’s a big ham, he loves the spotlight,” said Kitty Ferguson, who has written two biographies of the physicist.

She said he had a wry sense of humor and had programmed his computer to respond to random encounters with people who asked if he was Stephen Hawking. “No, but I’m often mistaken for that man,” his voice synthesizer deadpans.

Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, attacks motor neurons, cells that control the muscles. Patients typically suffer muscle weakness and wasting, become paralysed and have problems talking, swallowing and breathing. Only about 10 percent of patients live longer than a decade.

People who are stricken at a young age, as Prof Hawking was, generally have a better chance of surviving longer.

Answering the world’s toughest questions

To mark his 70th birthday, Stephen Hawking answered a selection of questions from listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme.

Q Was there a time when there was nothing? – Roland, Lagos

A Time is defined only with the universe, so it makes no sense to talk about time before the universe began; it would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole.

Q What do you think the impact will be on humankind if Kepler 22-b does indeed support life? – CazCarpSnail via Twitter

A The discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe would be the biggest scientific discovery ever. But it would be very risky to attempt to communicate with an alien civilization.

Q Do you think humans will survive all potential disasters and eventually colonise the stars? – Matt Dotchon, Cardiff

A I am optimistic that progress in science and technology will eventually enable humans to spread beyond the Solar System and out into the far reaches of the Universe.