Although I cannot determine a specific moment in time that Stephen Hawking stole a place in my heart (perhaps when Eddie Redmayne portrayed him in his biographical movie), I would argue that it did spark an interest in myself that was boiling to the surface for a very long time.
During the dreadful middle school era, I was sent off to different summer camps every year to buy time until my mother got out of work, which always seemed to be an unbearably long wait considering the hunger I felt from not eating any of the food they provided us with. Til this day, I will not eat lunch meat that slides against another piece of its kind, and makes a cringeworthy squeaking noise. Anyway, years of summer camp passed until I found my perfect fit: The Franklin Institute summer camp program.
This camp was the birth of my love of science…and my fear of the planetarium. But yes, the food did get better considering I was able to bring my own lunches consisting of…you know…non-squeaking lunchmeat. You win some, you lose some.
Anyway, back to Stephen. As I hit the age where summer camp was growing to be way too boring while the camp was growing to be way too expensive, I decided it was best to spend summers at home with the family. My love of science became a taped shut cardboard box tucked deeply in the back of my brain.
One night a few years later, my mother decided to take me out to see The Theory of Everything in the hopes of reminding me of my passion for the subject. I had no knowledge of what the movie was about beforehand, but it quickly became one of my all-time favorite films.
This ignited a very deep (and admittedly odd) obsession with Hawking for myself. Not only did it reacquaint me with an old, familiar passion, but it brought forth a new longing for controversial answers; answers about our significance in such a vast universe, answers about our origins and cosmology, answers regarding black holes and all the mind blowing aspects of the unknown, and, nevertheless, answers about how the hell Hawking could speak.
For those who may not have any knowledge about this incredible man, I’ll provide a brief history of Stephen Hawking. Hawking, born in 1942, led quite a normal life up until the point of his college years. Entering Oxford, he decided to study physics and chemistry while coxing the university’s rowing team in his free time. He attended Cambridge for his graduate program in cosmology, where he would go on to be the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. While establishing himself in the world of elites, his diagnosis of early-onset and slow progressing ALS would pose complications to his bright future, estimating he would live only another 2 years. However, he still persists today and through awesome technology, Hawking would never lose his capability to communicate his genius work. He eventually went on to write bestsellers through such technology including “A Brief History of Time”, (now you notice my play on words) an enlightening, yet seemingly foreign language document to someone with very little knowledge about the complexity of the subject. Trust me.
The life altering technological devices that have enabled Hawking to communicate after losing the ability to speak, after a bout with pneumonia leading to a tracheotomy, continue to advance today. For a while, he communicated through raising his eyebrows to indicate correct spelling cards, but the technology soon took off. The first program he used was called the “Equalizer”, which was made by the CEO of Words Plus, Walter Woltosz. Through this method, a small computer was attached to his wheelchair and Hawking would press a switch to select letters, words, and phrases from a bank of prescanned options through which he could produce 15 words a minute. The voice he uses today is the original robotic American accent from this method created by MIT engineer Dennis Klatt, a voice he claims to identify with and will not upgrade due to his attachment to it.
Since 1997, Hawking teamed up with Intel. Gradually, he lost the ability to use his hand and began controlling this device by his cheek muscles at a rate of one word per minute. Attached to his glasses was a switch that could detect the tensing of Hawking’s cheek to generate his choice of words. Due to risks of locked-in syndrome, he reached out to Intel researchers to collaborate and work on upgrading the system in order to translate his facial expressions and brain patterns as the trigger for activation. After many experimental prototypes he failed to adapt to, Hawking settled on a similar system to his original technology, one by SwiftKey called ACAT (Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit) that more quickly and efficiently predicts words and phrases he frequently uses which he chooses from by the flexing of his cheek.
Currently, there has been some attempts at furthering his wheelchair technology system by connecting his chin to a joystick, allowing him to independently navigate. However, since he has extremely limited neck movement, to the point where he has almost none left, it is difficult to operate the joystick. As a result, the chair makes jumpy and unwanted movements.
The role technology plays in Hawking’s everyday life is obviously quite crucial to his existence and ability to make the contributions he does to science. Hawking remains a staple for disabled people and people in general. Even today, he puts much of his focus on humanity. I leave you with not only the recommendation to watch The Theory of Everything, but also with his words: “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially, and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years? … I don’t know the answer. That is why I asked the question, to get people to think about it, and to be aware of the dangers we now face.’
Medeiros, Joao . “How Intel Gave Stephen Hawking a Voice.” Editorial. Wired.com. Wired, 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.