Stephen Hawking – Master of the Wheelchair

Stephen William Hawking, 69 year-old English theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose scientific books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity. (Cosmology – the astrophysical study of the structure and constituent dynamics of the universe.) In addition, he received the 2009 award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for thirty years and is now Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge.

He is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology, in general. These include the runaway best-seller, A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times best- sellers-list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. All this in spite of possessing a motor neuron-disease that is related to Amyotrophic-Lateral-Sclerosis (ALS – “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralyzed.

Hawking was always interested in science. Inspired by his mathematics teacher, he originally wanted to study the subject at the university. However, his father wanted him to apply to the University College, Oxford, where his father had attended. As University College did not have a mathematics-fellow at that time, it would not accept applications from students who wished to study that discipline. He, therefore, studied natural sciences, in which he won a scholarship, instead. Once at University College, Hawking specialized in physics. His interests during this time were in thermodynamics, relativity and quantum mechanics.

Almost as soon as he arrived at Cambridge, he started developing symptoms of ALS would cost him almost all neuromuscular control. During his first two years at Cambridge, he did not distinguish himself, but after the disease had stabilized and with the help of his doctoral tutor, he returned to working on his Ph.D.

His achievements were made despite the increasing paralysis caused by the ALS. By 1974, he was unable to feed himself or get out of bed. His speech became slurred so that he could be understood only by people who knew him well. In 1985, he caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy, which made him unable to speak at all. A Cambridge scientist built a device that enables Hawking to write onto a computer with small movements of his body and a voice- synthesizer speaks what he has typed.

Billionaire Richard Branson pledged to pay all expenses for a space-trip in a rocket costing an estimated $ 375,000 during which time he experienced weightlessness some eight times that took place on 26 April 2007. He became the first quadriplegic to float in zero-gravity that was the first time in forty years that he moved freely, without his wheelchair.

Stephen Hawking is severely-disabled. His illness is markedly different from typical-ALS in that his form of the disease would make for the most protracted case ever documented. A survival rate of more than ten years after diagnosis is extremely rare for ALS. The longest documented-durations are thirty-two and thirty-nine years and these cases were termed benign because of the lack of the typical progressive course.

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When he was young, he enjoyed riding horses and playing with other children. At Oxford, he was the coxswain on a rowing team, which, he stated, helped relieve his immense boredom at the university. Symptoms of the disorder first appeared while he was enrolled at University of Cambridge. He lost his balance and fell down a flight of stairs, hitting his head. Worried that he would lose his genius, he took the Mensa test to verify that his intellectual abilities were intact. The diagnosis of motor-neuron disease came when he was 21 and doctors said he would not survive more than two or three years. He gradually lost the use of his arms, legs and voice. As   of 2009, he has been almost completely paralyzed.

During a visit to CERN in Geneva (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in 1985, he contracted pneumonia, which, in his condition, was life-threatening as it further restricted his already limited respiratory capacity. He had an emergency tracheotomy and as a result, lost what remained of his ability to speak. He has since used an “electronic-voice-synthesizer” to com-municate. The “DECtalk-DTC01” voice-synthesizer he uses, which has an American/ English accent, is no longer being produced. Asked why he has still kept it after so many years, Hawking mentioned that he has not heard a voice he likes better and that he identifies with it. He is look-ing for a replacement unit since the one being used is obsolete, besides being both large and, at the same time, fragile, by current standards.

In his many media appearances, he appears to speak fluently through his synthesizer but in reality, it is a tedious, drawn-out process. His setup uses a “predictive-text-entry-system” that requires only the first few characters to “auto-complete” the word but as he is only able to use his cheek for “data-entry”, constructing complete sentences takes time. His speeches are prepared in advance but having a live conversation with him provides insight as to the complexity and work involved. During a specific conference talk, it took him seven minutes to answer a question.

He describes himself as lucky despite his disease. Its slow progression has allowed him time to make influential discoveries and has not hindered him from having, in his own words, “a very attractive family.” When his wife, Jane, was asked why she decided to marry a man with a three-year life expectancy, she responded, “Those were the days of atomic gloom-and-doom so we all had rather a short-life-expectancy.”

His belief that the lay person should have access to his work led him to write a series of popular science books, in addition to his academic work. The first of these, A Brief History of Time, was published on 1 April 1988 by Hawking, his family and friends, and some leading physicists. It was a best-seller, surprisingly, and was followed by The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). Both books have remained highly popular all over the world. He and his daughter, Lucy Hawking, have recently published a children’s book focusing on science that has been described to be “like Harry Potter but without the magic.” The book is George’s Secret Key to the Universe and includes information on the Hawking radiation theory.

Currently, Stephen Hawking is under-going experiments with “thought-based communication systems” using a specially-designed helmet to process brain-waves by conversion of these “waves” into physical actions such as voice, arm-movements, head-adjustments, leg-movements and possible wheelchair- movements. These experiments are ideal for patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease. As the disease progresses, patients have fully functional brains but slowly lose control over their muscles. “Synthetic- telepathy” could be a way for these patients to communicate in the future based on these experiments being conducted both here and abroad.

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Source by Alan L. Stewart

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