Special | By Wong Chun Wai

Up Close and Personal with Stephen Hawkings

HE has been described as the most brilliant living genius. In the realm of physics, he is ranked only after Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Stephen Hawking is more than deserving of the title of “world’s most famous living scientist”. He has achieved so much, charting new frontiers despite his disabilities and being confined to a wheelchair.

His 1988 book A Brief History of Time topped the best-selling lists for 237 weeks, reportedly having sold one copy for every 750 people on earth.

The book is regarded as a layman’s guide to the origins of the universe and the theory of “Black Holes” and has since become a modern classic.

And he is currently working on What Happened to the Big Bang, a book which simplifies the subject matter for a young audience, with his daughter Lucy, 41, a journalist and author.

Awe-inspiring meeting: Wong interviewing Hawking through a voice synthesizer at the University of Cambridge with the help of Lucy

At 68, his health has deteriorated further but it is not stopping him, just as it has never stopped him before. Afflicted with neuro-muscular dystrophy since 21, he is unable to use his fingers and has long lost his ability to speak. He has nurses watching over him 24 hours a day.

He can only communicate using facial gestures including eye blinks. His computerised voice system is controlled by using a blink-activated infrared monitor embedded in his glasses.

There is a barely perceptible movement of his lips but his eyes are incredibly knowing.

Hawking no longer gives press interviews these days. His office, located at the University of Cambridge, is said to receive thousands of e-mail each day.

They include requests for media interviews, some of which come with offers of payment for the privilege of meeting the world-renowned British scientist whose career spans over 40 years. Hawking is now the director of research for the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). He was the university’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics – the world’s most famous academic chair – for 30 years until last January when he had to give it up because it is the university’s policy for the holder of the chair to retire at 67. Previous holders include Isaac Newton, who formulated the gravitational theory.

It is hard to associate the Hawking in a wheelchair with the young Hawking who loved riding horses and coxed a rowing team when he was studying at Oxford.

As a first-year doctorate student at Cambridge and shortly before his first marriage, he was diagnosed with a motor neurone disease and told that he could only live for a few more years. But he has certainly defied the odds.

The disease did not stop him from marrying language student Jane Wilde in 1965 and having three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy. He wrote scientific papers, delivered lectures and wrote his best seller, despite being in his electric wheelchair which is fitted with a portable computer and speech synthesizer.

There have also been no shortage of controversies in his private life. His wife Jane described him as a “tyrant” after their divorce and wrote that he had a “God-like complex.” He subsequently married his nurse, Elaine Mason, but it ended following allegations of mistreatment.

My preparation for the interview with Hawking started well. I had e-mailed my list of questions to his daughter Lucy about a month before my trip to Cambridge.

The questions were short, direct and numbered as requested. Another journalist, who was lucky to have been granted an interview too, had her questions returned because Hawking wanted them “stripped of extraneous details.”

His room is located on the first floor of the white-washed DAMTP, which is understandably disabled friendly.

White steam puffed out of a dehumidifier, camouflaged by sea shells near his table.

Hawking sat in the middle of the room, with a team of nurses and aides watching.

There was a moment of awkwardness. Awed by the presence of this great man and my inability to deal with his disability, I felt uneasy and was privately ashamed of my reaction.

Perhaps sensing my hesitance, Lucy took her father’s hand and asked me to shake it.

“Dad, Wong has travelled all the way from Malaysia to meet you. He says he likes our books,” she said in an attempt to break the ice.

There was a long silence, punctuated only by the whirring and beeping sounds from his computer. I looked at the computer screen and could not be sure whether he was responding.

Numbers and words filled the screen, giving me the impression that he was doing many things at the same time, with various thoughts being flashed.

After a while, he responded, through the voice box, that he was glad that I liked the two children’s books on the universe that he had written with Lucy. There were smiles all around the room.

Lucy explained to me how the machine, which reportedly can only manage 15 words a minute, has been used to write e-mail and even to laboriously write his bestseller.

Malaysian student Vincent Tang, a first class honours graduate in physics who had joined me for the interview, told Hawking about the latest design for a similar voice synthesizer by the Cambridge university.

That seemed to interest Hawking more than my questions, and earned a response from him. After another question from me on how he felt about the fate of the earth, there was a longer silence. His face showed an agonised look, as if he was struggling with an answer, and his cheeks were twitching.

While waiting for his response, Lucy took the opportunity to show me around his office. Hawking, despite his intellectual capacity, is a man with a strong sense of humour.

In one interview, he was reportedly asked how he managed to father three children and he replied: “The disease only affects voluntary muscles.”

He has also told the media in an interview that he loves watching TV crime series and The Simpsons.

A figurine of him sitting in a wheel chair, specially made for him as a gift by the producers of the TV cartoon show, sits proudly on his table. It is one of his favourite ornaments. There are more caricatures of him with the Simpsons characters. Hawking has appeared in cameo roles in the series.

There is also a picture on the wall of a grinning and delighted Hawking with a super-imposed visual of a very sexy Marilyn Monroe. The late actress remains one of his idols.

Then there is a picture of him with United States President Barack Obama, who awarded Hawking with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s top civilian award – at the White House in August 2009. It was one of his rare trips overseas. The physicist clearly adores Obama; there are Obama buttons on the bookshelves.

There are also photographs of Hawking at a zero-gravity excursion at Zero Gravity Corporation in the US in 2007. For the first time in 40 years, the quadriplegic could move freely without his wheelchair. The child-like delight on his face is clearly captured in the pictures on the walls at the entrance of his office.

Hawking has clearly defied the odds and there is still much he wants to achieve. An advocate of space exploration, he wants to travel to space as a tourist.

“Perhaps, one day I will go to space,” he said in the interview.

But back on earth, he still has one mission to accomplish with Lucy. They have finished two children’s books – George’s Secret Key to the Universe and George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt which give children and even adults a better grasp of cosmic mysteries – and are working on the third. It is expected to be published later this year.

There is now a plan to turn the Harry Potter-like trilogy into a play.

“There are many things I want to achieve. If we lose our dreams, we will die,” he said.

“I don’t have much that is positive to say about the motor neurone disease but it has taught me not to pity myself, because others are worse off, and to get on with what I can still do.”