Editor's note: A version of this was previously published on the author's blog.
A boy in his early teens stood beside Stephen Hawking's wheelchair, asking a scientific question. The world's most famous astrophysicist smiled up at him with his lopsided grin — and then nothing happened. Minutes passed. He must not have been impressed with the query, or maybe he didn't hear, I thought. But then came Hawking's famous, computer-generated voice, giving an insightful answer.
During that pause, I learned later, his barely noticeable hand motions had been moving his computer's controls, highlighting lines of words across the blue screen, and he had been selecting each to form a reply. The computer presented a list of about 3,000 words that showed at the top of the monitor, and his sentences formed at the bottom of the screen. He could also spell out words not on the menu. Constructing several sentences could require 15 minutes of this effort before he commanded the computer to play back his thought.
Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), couldn't quiet his mind or prevent his speaking and interacting. Considering the laboriousness of the effort, it's surprising the answer wasn't delayed even longer. The youth and the rest of the crowd in Hansen Planetarium were thrilled with the response.
That he took the time to think through the boy's question and formulate the answer epitomizes my memories of Hawking, beyond any physical disability, even beyond his blazing intelligence, his wit and the astronomical calculations that improve our understanding of some of astronomy's deepest mysteries. It's Hawking the kind genius who interests me. He was a brilliant man whose greatness shone in his thoughtfulness and in his zest for life.
His reply "was the real highlight for me," I wrote in my journal on July 3, 1993.
"The lecture was pretty far out, with 'baby universes' and superstring theory, but thoroughly enjoyable. Hawking has displayed real verve, energy, wit. Doug Lowe of the planetarium said he has been running the staff ragged. As soon as he arrived yesterday, he had them take him out to the Great Salt Lake, saying he wanted to see it since he was 12. Then he took the staff to a late show of Jurassic Park at Trolley Square. Then at 1 a.m. he was still up for more.
"I felt sad for him when he arrived. Someone had to wipe his face, probably to get rid of drool, just before he wheeled himself into the Art Center reception area (where the July 3 reception was held; the next day another was held on the second floor of the planetarium, 15 S. State). And while his face and hair are youthful, he has no muscle tone in his slack lower face. His body is emaciated and twisted, as if half-lounging in his motorized wheelchair. His hands are curved around terribly, so they are backwards as he holds his computer control and the joystick that lets him steer the wheelchair."
On July 4, 1993, I wrote in the journal, "This was another wonderful day — Hawking is truly a kind and patient man. I have great admiration for him. He 'spoke' with Britt Allen this afternoon at the planetarium, both of them using their voice synthesizers."
Britt, 11, at the time was a Holladay sixth-grader in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, who also communicated through a synthetic voice controlled by computer. When they met, Hawking asked in the peculiar measured tones, "How do you like your computer program?" Britt replied a moment later in a quicker, higher machine voice, "I think it's cool."
To quote from the article I wrote for the paper, published July 5, 1993:
"Britt met his hero, Hawking, during a reception Sunday afternoon at Hansen Planetarium, where they and invited guests viewed the planetarium's new show, 'Fate of the Universe.'Comment on this story
"The program was co-authored by Hawking and Diane Beam of the planetarium staff. In addition, Hawking narrates part of the program, which deals with many questions about the formation and possible destinies of the universe.
"According to the program, possible fates include that it will expand forever; or that it will stop expanding and begin to contract until it comes together in 'big crunch'; or that it will reach a 'flat' or steady state balanced between the other two possibilities."