STEPHEN HAWKING: Roaming the Cosmos

Physicist STEPHEN HAWKING is confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner in his own body, but his intellect carries him to the far reaches of the universe

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Hardly. From midmorning until he departs for dinner around 7 p.m., Hawking follows a routine that would tax the most able-bodied. When he rolled into the department's common room one morning last month, his students were sprawled in lounge chairs around low tables, talking shop. Maneuvering to one of the tables, Hawking clicked his control switch, evoking tiny beeps from his computer and selecting words from lists displayed on his screen. These words, assembled in sequence at the bottom of the screen, finally issued from the voice synthesizer: "Good morning. Can I have coffee?" Then, for the benefit of a visitor: "I am sorry about my American accent." (The synthesizer is produced by a California company.)

Fetching coffee, the nurse placed a bib on Stephen, who has difficulty swallowing, gently held his head forward and poured the beverage, a sip at a time, into his mouth. Meanwhile, Hawking was responding to a question from a student who knelt to read the answer as it slowly took shape on the dim liquid-crystal screen. The conversation shifted to creativity and how mathematicians seem to reach a creative peak in their early 20s. Hawking's computer beeped. "I'm over the hill," he said, to a chorus of laughter.

Most of Hawking's working day is spent in his cluttered, book-lined office, amid photographs of his wife Jane and their three children, Robert, 20, Lucy, 17, and Timmy, 8. There Stephen painstakingly writes technical papers or speeches on a desktop computer, stopping frequently to consult with his assistant, Graduate Student Raymond Laflamme, 27, who sits at his side. Occasionally, the artificial voice says "Lift," and Laflamme hoists up Hawking, who has slumped down in his chair. The word "glasses" signals that his spectacles have slid too far down his nose and must be pushed back.

Hawking was born on Jan. 8, 1942 -- 300 years to the day, he often notes, after the death of Galileo -- to parents who were Oxford graduates. As a small boy, he was slow to learn to read but liked to take things apart -- a way of "finding out how the world around me worked." But he confesses that he was never very good at putting things back together. When he was twelve, he recalls wryly, "one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don't know if this bet was ever settled and, if so, who won."

Enthralled by physics, Stephen concentrated in the subject at Oxford's University College, but did not distinguish himself. He partied, served as coxswain for the second-string crew and studied only an hour or so a day. Moving on to Cambridge for graduate work in relativity, he found the going rough, partly because of some puzzling physical problems; he stumbled frequently and seemed to be getting clumsy.

Doctors soon gave him the bad news: he had ALS, it would only get worse, and there was no cure. Hawking was devastated. Before long, he needed a cane to walk, was drinking heavily and ignoring his studies. "There didn't seem to be much point in completing my Ph.D.," he says.

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