A Marvelous Mind and a Life Well-Lived

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that we
have such easy access to interesting people, exciting places and
unique events.
One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that we have such easy access to interesting people, exciting places and unique events.

Like last week … Mike and I were able to snag a couple of tickets to the sold-out Dr. Stephen Hawking lecture at the Performing Arts Center.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to comprehend most of the material – his books and papers have a reputation for being tediously difficult. But I wanted to go even if I didn’t understand any of it. Dr. Hawking is living on borrowed time and widely considered one of the brightest minds on the face of our little planet.

In case you aren’t familiar with this legend-in-his-own-time character, Dr. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (a post formerly held by Sir Isaac Newton.) His life’s work has been directed toward understanding the basic laws which govern the universe, in particular its origin and black holes.

He’s also suffered the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease for the last 40 years. That in itself is quite an accomplishment since most individuals with ALS live half that long. Currently, his only working muscle lies under an eye at the top of his cheek.

Before Dr. Hawking appeared on stage, they showed a video of his computer and how he uses it to communicate. How he piles up words by scrolling through dictionaries and then stringing those words into sentences. They said it takes him about five minutes to write a sentence and about 20 to write a short paragraph.

If he wants to “speak” the sentence, a computer voice reads what he’s written, raising or lowering the last word so that the listener knows if it’s a question or a statement.

For lectures, Dr. Hawking sits on stage and twitches his cheek to deliver the pre-prepared sentences one at a time.

At Monday’s appearance, his cheek missed the computer scan a couple of times. We waited in complete silence while seconds ticked by. No one moved, coughed or rustled – all eyes were fixed on the stage and the crumpled man sitting there. All hoping that his computer would be able to transmit his next thought to us, his waiting world.

There was a large screen behind him and occasionally encyclopedia texts, pictures or Pong-type graphics would emerge on the screen to illustrate a point. But, it seemed to me – since a computer speaks for him, since he can’t raise his hands or move around on the stage to emphasize a point, since he can’t modulate voice tone or volume – his ideas pretty much stood alone all evening.

The ideas that I understood were pretty interesting.

In Bonnieeze, here are his main points: The universe had a beginning point and will someday come to an end. He’s convinced the beginning was an inexplicable Big Bang – an extraordinary movement or explosion that sent the universe as we know it spinning outward. Based on his studies, his working theory is that someday the universe will collapse in on itself and become a black hole.

(Regarding the question of evolution versus creation – I really don’t want to incite a new round of letters from Dale Morejohn and his antithesis entourage – but he said that if evolution is the correct theory, the earth is about 15 billion years old. On the other hand, he teased, it could have just been created to look old.)

I was impressed at how freely he mixed philosophy, religion and science throughout the evening. And how easily he conceded that the facts scientists DO know are significantly less than all of the things they DON’T know.

It was most worthwhile. Even though a vandal pummeled my car, the tickets were pricey, the packed center was hot and stuffy, the seats uncomfortable … I’m glad I went.

Why? Mainly because I witnessed the fierce determination of a man who is more than his disease. His mind is alive, he’s breathing, and as long as those two things are “on” he will find a way to matter.

Dr. Hawking said, “I don’t have time to do the things I can do, so it doesn’t seem important to worry about the things I can’t do.”

So much for whining about the little inconveniences of life. So much for leaving this universe before we’re done doing what we came to do.

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