[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/03/11/art.hawking.front.jpg caption="Professor Stephen Hawking in Pasadena, CA. Hawking gave a lecture entitled, "Why We Should Go Into Space."]
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/03/11/art.hawking.back.chair.jpg caption="The back of Stephen Hawking's wheelchair."]
CNN LA Producer
I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by the famous and ground-breaking science professor Stephen Hawking last night in Pasadena called “Why We Should Go Into Space.” Speaking from his high-tech wheelchair, he delivered a convincing argument for why space exploration should continue even in toughest economic times – using everything from hard statistics on NASA’s flat budget - just 0.12% of the federal budget - to a vintage Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about intelligent life in the universe.
It was an engaging look at man's place in the cosmos and how much more there is to know about our universe. Yet as I grappled with black holes, interstellar exploration and the search for life in the universe, I kept drifting away back to events of the day, and the terrestrial pursuit of politics. Earlier on Monday, President Obama signed an executive order lifting the Bush administration’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.
You see, aside from being a really, really, really smart guy – Stephen Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive and usually fatal motor neuron disease. Most people know it by its acronym ALS or even more commonly, as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
To say that the disease has ravaged Hawking's body is an understatement. ALS usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70. Hawking was diagnosed just after his 21st birthday. By age 32 he could no longer feed himself. After a 1985 bout of pneumonia led to an emergency tracheotomy, Hawking was unable communicate verbally.
At first, the only way Hawking could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. Later, a computer developer in California created a program that allowed Hawking to select words from a series of menus operated by head or eye movement. The results are sent to either a speech synthesizer or a hard drive disk. And that's how I heard Hawking's lecture.
It is a great irony that the man many consider the world’s greatest living scientist is trapped inside a body that allows him to express himself only with a computer. In a world full of people “talking loud and saying nothing” - one of my favorite James Brown lines - a guy routinely mentioned in the same sentence as Newton and Einstein is able to express a maximum of 15 words in one minute.
The many limitations Hawking endures have not stopped him from strongly criticizing the nations that seek to restrict stem cell research. And while there is no guarantee that embryonic stem cells can cure ALS – last year scientists at Harvard and Columbia were able to make stem cells transform into nerve cells genetically matched to those that had gone bad in ALS patients’ spinal cords.
In his lecture, Hawking stuck to space exploration and pushing the boundaries of human exploration of our universe. Because it takes him so long to answer extemporaneous questions – about seven minutes to form a response to anything more than a yes or no question – I wasn’t able to ask him what he thought about the President's decision on stem cell research. And even though I never got the chance to ask Dr. Hawking my question – I did take a picture which might offer a clue to what his answer might be.
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