Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking died today.

I don't remember when I first came to know about him. I think it was after the summer of 1984, the summer I spent at Carnegie-Mellon University for the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences. I believe it was before I began college at the University of Scranton in late August 1985. I think I first got to know him through a NOVA special on PBS, though I also seem to remember a profile on 20/20 or 60 Minutes. In any event, by the time I started college I knew a lot about him and a little about his work.

That was back in the days when he still had a voice. It was not a very loud voice. To casual listeners it sounded like a slurred buzz, though back then he had a group of graduate students to interpret what he was saying.That was before he was hit by a car, before the emergency tracheotomy that allowed him to continue breathing but robbed him of his voice. Before the speech synthesizer that most people have come to think of as "his" voice.

My sister arranged for me to see Stephen Hawking at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. ten or more years ago. It was a strange experience. He rolled onto the stage to thunderous applause - and then what was basically a dual-screen PowerPoint presentation began, with pre-recorded narration. (It took him some time to assemble words into sentences, so a "live" narration would have taken very long.) It was amazing to see him, and I will be forever grateful to my sister for the opportunity. But the presentation had a feeling of exploitation to it. The presentation would have been the same without his presence. Did he even need to be there? On the other hand, all those in attendance got to be in his presence. And he got to hear our applause and cheers. I think that might have meant a great deal to him.

He did amazing things with his brain, and left behind a body of work that others will continue to study and argue over for many decades. The human race is better off for his seventy-eight years as a member.

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