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Reprinted with permission from La Voz, the De Anza College Newspaper

January 24, 2000


The Scientist in Us All

by Bryan Rockstroh
Staff Writer

The smile is what gets you. It strikes without warning and when it hits it seems to change Stephen Hawking from a wheelchair-bound physicist to a mischievous grandfather who would sooner play a practical joke on you than spend a lifetime trying to decipher God's master plan.

When you get close to him you are struck by a powerful sense of presence. It's as if he is real, and everything around him is made false for a little while. Then he leaves, and the world releases a held breath, as if a tiny black hole has passed through the room.

Professor Stephen Hawking visited De Anza College on Friday, Jan. 21, and addressed a wall-to-wall crowd for lunch in the Hinson Campus Center. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, dressed in a relaxed red-and-blue plaid shirt, spoke to the students through the voice synthesizer on his wheelchair for about twenty minutes on the topic of "Awakening the Scientist in All of Us."

Mentor Graphics was prominently on display as students, staff, and faculty gave Hawking their complete attention.

Well, almost. At the height of Hawking's talk I looked in the corner of the cafeteria and noticed a couple of students studying. That's devotion.

Astronomy instructor Sherwood Harrington conducted the question-and-answer session following the talk. Students wrote questions down on slips of paper and handed them in before the lecture began, and some of the representative questions were directed at Hawking

It takes him some time to answer each question because he has to compose the answer on the computer on his wheelchair, word by word. It's a long process that seems to underscore the quiet determination of the man. During the lapse between question and answer, other non-scientific questions were thrown at his assistant, Chris Burgoyne.

"What kind of music does he listen to?" one student asked.

"He listens to ear-bleeding Wagner," replied Burgoyne.

"Why did he go to Vietnam?" another wanted to know. Burgoyne started to reply but Hawking appeared to cut him short, preferring to respond to the question on his own.

"I went to Vietnam to visit a child my wife and I had sponsored," Hawking revealed. "We had a wonderful time, and the girl will visit us at Cambridge this summer."

As for students considering a career in physics, he said, "my advice to those who want to do physics is to do well in math. Mathematics and physics are good choices for the physically disabled because they are all in the mind."

Addresses Sold-out Flint Center

"Can you hear me?" he asked the Flint Center audience later that evening. The metallic voice seemed to come from far away, and it was suddenly all so amazing - that Hawking could communicate with us, that he was there at De Anza, and that he was alive at all.

He delivered "The Universe in a Nutshell," as promised.

"I have been asked to say a little about myself, what I have achieved, and what obstacles I have had to overcome" Hawking said. "I think my greatest achievement is being alive today."

In 1963 Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Doctors said he would be dead by 1966.

"The prospect of an early death concentrated my mind wonderfully," he said.

He is one of the world's longest-lived ALS patients. He contributes his survival to vitamins. Others might contribute it a strong sense of purpose, as if Hawking has plans that a stroke of bad luck cannot stop.

Following his lecture was another question-and-answer session.

On whether or not scientists are close to finding the Grand Unified Theory underwriting the whole of the universe? Hawking replied that twenty years ago he stated there was a fifty-fifty chance of discovering the secrets within twenty years. Now, twenty years later, he says there's still a fifty-fifty chance of finding the secrets within twenty years.

His favorite Shakespearean play? Julius Caesar. "It is the only play in which I ever acted, though that is not the reason it is my favorite."

Unlike the luncheon, during the Q&A at the Flint Center the audience was left to fend for itself while Hawking composed his answers. At one point he announced to his assistant that he was ready, and when Burgoyne dutifully bounded back onstage he was told to go away.

"No?" Burgoyne asked, confused. "You're not ready, that was just you fooling me?" He paused. "Right. Okay," he muttered, turning to walk offstage. The practical joker strikes again.

Bringing Hawking to the college took a lot of work. "It was a fluke," said De Anza president Martha Kanter. She learned that Hawking was in California through Terry Bristol of the Institute for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. There was a chance he might be able to come to De Anza, but sponsors would have to be found.

"I admired Dr. Hawking," said Kanter, "and who knew when he would come back to the West Coast?" Sponsors came forward and over a thousand students from local high schools and colleges came to see Hawking.

"One student came to me and cried afterward," Kanter recalled. "He had lost both parents to ALS."

I got to meet Hawking, briefly. After getting past the Mentor Graphics public relations people, I was ushered into the Santa Cruz room. There was Stephen Hawking. But Burgoyne told me Hawking was hungry and there would be no more time for questions. Hawking had already steered his chair toward the door, ready to leave.

Burgoyne offered to deliver my questions to Hawking via email later that evening and then politely but firmly showed me the door. Janice Winkel from De Anza's marketing department was waiting on the other side with her camera. The timing was absolutely beautiful. "Let's get a picture," she said.

Burgoyne looked back at Hawking and shook his head and then appeared to reconsider.

"Sure," he said. "But quickly."

Winkel snapped three quick pictures. I thanked Hawking and Burgoyne, left the room, and broke into a smile that stayed there for the rest of the day.