Like Einstein, he is as famous for his story as for his science.
At age 21, the British physicist Stephen Hawking was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, otherwise known as ALS. While ALS is usually fatal within five years, Hawking lived on and flourished, producing some of the most important cosmological research of his time.
In the 1960s, with Sir Roger Penrose, he used mathematics to explicate the properties of black holes. In 1973, he applied Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the principles of quantum mechanics. And he showed that black holes were not completely black but could leak radiation and eventually explode and disappear, a finding that is still reverberating through physics and cosmology. Hawking, in 1988, tried to explain what he knew about the boundaries of the universe to the lay public in A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes. The book sold more than 10 million copies and was on best-seller lists for more than two years.
Today, at 69, Hawking is one of the longest-living survivors of ALS, and perhaps the most inspirational. Mostly paralyzed, he can speak only through a computerized voice simulator.
On a screen attached to his wheelchair, commonly used words flash past him. With a cheek muscle, he signals an electronic sensor in his eyeglasses to transmit instructions to the computer. In this way he slowly builds sentences; the computer transforms them into the metallic, otherworldly voice familiar to Hawking’s legion of fans.
It’s an exhausting and time-consuming process. Yet this is how he stays connected to the world, directing research at the Center for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, writing prolifically for specialists and generalists alike and lecturing to rapt audiences from France to Fiji.
Hawking came here last month at the invitation of a friend, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, for a science festival sponsored by the Origins Project of Arizona State University. His lecture, My Brief History, was not all quarks and black holes. At one point, he spoke of the special joys of scientific discovery.
“I wouldn’t compare it to sex,” he said in his computerized voice, “but it lasts longer.” The audience roared.
The next afternoon, Hawking sat with me for a rare interview. Well, a kind of interview, actually.
Ten questions were sent to his daughter, Lucy Hawking, 40, a week before the meeting. So as not to exhaust her father, who has grown weaker since a near-fatal illness two years ago, Lucy Hawking read them to him over a period of days.
During our meeting, the physicist played back his answers. Only one exchange, the last, was spontaneous. Yet despite the limitations, it was Hawking who wanted to do the interview in person rather than by e-mail. Some background on the second query, the one about extraterrestrials. For the past year, Lucy Hawking was writer in residence at the Origins Project at Arizona State University. As part of her work, she and Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State, started a contest, “Dear Aliens,” inviting Phoenix schoolchildren to write essays about what they might say to space beings trying to contact Planet Earth.
Claudia Dreifus: Doctor Hawking, what is a typical day like for you?
Stephen Hawkings: I get up early every morning and go to my office where I work with my colleagues and students at Cambridge University. Using e-mail, I can communicate with scientists all over the world.