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March 11th, 2009
11:00 AM ET

Stephen Hawking – the Universe and President Obama

The back of Stephen Hawking's wheelchair.

The back of Stephen Hawking's wheelchair.

Carey Bodenheimer
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.


Filed under: 360° Radar • NASA • Space
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Mike

    The space program has been a tremendous source of technological innovation in the US. Corporations depend heavily on the results of government-sponsored research, since few companies can afford to do basic research themselves. NASA programs continue to provide crucial insights into a broad range of fields including improved batteries, solar energy, high-resolution optics, digital communications, navigation, electronic storage, semiconductors, nanotechnology, bioengineering ... to name only a few.

    March 11, 2009 at 8:04 pm |
  2. Savannah

    I admire Hawking for all of his accomplishments and perseverance but in relation to the toplc of space and science, space exploration is one of the things in need of a limit. Science and invention will always be part of America but in this economic crisis it should be in a way used sparingly.

    March 11, 2009 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Deb George

    How can the self professed smartest man on Earth, who has spent most of his life analyzing the wonders and precision of the universe, not believe in a creator? If Hawkins sees a newly built home, does he immediately think that it came from nothing? It takes a faith toooooo big to believe that there are only accidents.

    March 11, 2009 at 12:16 pm |
  4. StevG

    Dr. Hawkins, should be a beacon, for his hard work, fortitude, iron will,
    patience,and courage. We all can learn a lesson from him.

    March 11, 2009 at 12:06 pm |
  5. Melissa

    And yet, the people that fight against stem cell research would rather this man continue to live this way despite the fact that embryo's don't have to be used for the research.

    The man is one of the most brilliant minds in the world, but gets treated with the respect of a gnat.

    March 11, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Amanda Walton Fort Erie, Ontario

    I would love to hear a lecture from Mr. Hawkings, I loved reading his book A Brief History of Time, quite complex on quantum physics but well worth the read, back when I read it there was no Google so encyclopedias needed to be on hand.

    Mr. Hawkings is such an amazing man and a miracle worker, he must have been so thrilled to hear the President he takes with him everywhere has supported this extremely important study of stem cell research.

    I also agree with Mr. Hawkings on the importance of space exploration, if we don't move forward and out we'll never advance to the next stages of science.

    Stay Safe

    March 11, 2009 at 11:24 am |
  7. Larry Frieders

    I struggle with the notion that "we" owe anyone anything – above and beyond life, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness. WE haven't done anything to destroy Dr. Hawking's life and we aren't interfering with his pursuit of happiness. The question of diminishing freedoms is still on the table for all of us. Please don't think I oppose or support stem cell research – those are just not the topic of my comment.

    March 11, 2009 at 11:02 am |
  8. meenas17

    Hawkins is a living wonder. When we ,in our pink of health get exhausted, he trapped in a body which is just a bag, astounds the world with his erudition and knowledge. The question which was not put forward to him regarding the stemcells,would have brought a homogeneous reply from him.

    March 11, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  9. earle,florida

    I really wish Dr. Hawking well on government spending for "Space Exploration",but my fatalistic instincts are on the "Not" mode button"! My calculation of this world blowing itself up with a nuclear holocaust are within the next 50 years,period! Nice knowing ya all,...

    March 11, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  10. Mike in NYC

    Your mentioning James Brown in the same sentence as Newton and Einstein gave me a brief but painful spasm of cognitive dissonance.

    March 11, 2009 at 10:15 am |
  11. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    What professor Hawking has endured and what he has contributed to science--–if stem cell research can improve his life and so many others suffering from ALS-–we owe it to him, to those who suffer; and more important, we owe it to "humanity."

    March 11, 2009 at 9:56 am |