Journey of the unfettered mind

Stephen Hawking, who lives with motor neuron disease and writes with a sensor attached to his cheek, is extra special because he encourages us to never give up

Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest living scientists in the world. When he was in school in a suburb of London, he liked math and science, but his marks were not great. Though an awkward and puny boy, he enjoyed the company of friends and spent more time with them than in studies, since he was a quick learner.

Stephen, his two sisters and adopted brother lived with their parents in Oxford. They were quite a funny family. It is believed that at the dinner table they all ate silently, each one reading a book. On summer nights, they would all stretch out in the backyard and look up at the sky. Young Stephen used to be so fascinated with the stars and the sky that when the time came for him to choose a course of higher study, he opted for physics and cosmology instead of medicine, which was his father’s choice.

Prof Hawking celebrated his 70th birthday on January 8, this year. He has always been very proud and happy that he was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of the great physicist and thinker Galileo Galilei.

His phenomenal work in the field of quantum physics (the study of the small) and cosmology (the study of the big) has earned him several awards and positions including one which he is very happy to have — a professorial chair at Cambridge University, that was once held by Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Like Newton, he is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. However, the actual chair that Dr Hawking sits on is a super computerised, extremely special wheelchair, since he lives with motor neuron disease.

Doctors diagnosed the disease when he was 22 years old and predicted that he would live only for two years. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the collegian decided to do as much research as possible in those difficult months and went on to discover many many theories about the formation of the universe, black holes, and more.  How did the universe begin? Was it born when a big bang happened?

His book ‘A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes’ answers many of these questions. It sold millions of copies and remains a bestseller even today. He has written several books and essays including one with Sir Roger Penrose named ‘The Nature of Space and Time’. Will the universe keep expanding? Does it have boundaries?

No, says Dr Hawking to the first question, and yes to the second. Dr Penrose thinks the opposite way. They wrote a book together the next year called ‘The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind’. And he wrote ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’ in 2002.

How did Stephen Hawking write? Not with a pen and paper; not by tapping furiously on a computer keypad nor by dictating his lines to a secretary or into a recording device. This is because he has lost the use of his arms and his feet and his voice. So, how? Till some time ago he could move his fingers, and he used these to tap and select each word from the group of words that appeared on a special screen on his computer. The lines were then selected, again by tapping that one switch.

The final essay got converted into an audio file through a speech synthesizer. And that is what is played when he comes to deliver a lecture at scientific functions. Now that he has lost the use of his fingers too, he manages the computer programme through a cheek muscle attached to a sensor!

The scientist leads a full life with his three children and grandchildren. He likes to travel and hopes to travel into space soon. In fact, in 2007 when he was 65 years old, he visited the Kennedy Space Centre. He got the opportunity to go on a modified Boeing 727 in a zero gravity simulation so that he floated freely inside the airship, that went over the Atlantic Ocean. He was out of his wheelchair after 40 years!

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