Hawking, in memoriam: The purloined computer | PostIndependent.com

Hawking, in memoriam: The purloined computer

Alison Osius Femaelstrom

Alison Osius

Editor’s note: The Post Independent is republishing this column by Alison Osius from April 2007, in memory of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, whose physical being has left the universe.

I flipped up the nearby overhead bins and spotted my computer, but noticed it seemed awfully heavy. For most of the journey home I had carried the baby, and Mike, the laptop. This time he'd lifted up two-month-old Teddy, and they were already halfway down the aisle; I just figured he had stowed something else inside the carrying case.

We were laden with gifts, books, and a vast assortment of baby accoutrements. As I reached the tarmac, a dark-haired man hurried down the portable stairs after me, calling, "Excuse me, is that your computer?" I glanced down at the familiar gray Apple carrying case slung from my shoulder, said yes in slight surprise, and hurried along to get out of the winter cold.

I was waiting by the carousel in the Aspen airport when the same man, with a cohort, rushed up to me again, now very flustered." You have Stephen Hawking's computer!" he cried. They composed themselves." We were afraid you'd left," one said. "He needs it for everything."

I stammered an uncertain apology, and exclaimed, "Well, where's mine?" I dashed back out into the night to the plane, where my laptop in its gray case sat innocently in a further bin. This week as I write, the great physicist Hawking, of England, has experienced weightlessness on a jet flight of parabolic lunges. Hawking is profoundly disabled."

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It was amazing," Hawking, 65, of England, told reporters, after floating. "I could have gone on and on." Hawking, whose books include the bestseller “A Brief History of Time,” has conducted pioneering research on black holes and the origins of the universe.

He was 21 and a brilliant student in general relativity and cosmology at Cambridge when he fell ill. His physics tutor, Robert Berman, later told the New York Times Magazine, "It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he could do it without looking to see how other people did it. … He didn't have very many books, and he didn't take notes. Of course, his mind was completely different from all of his contemporaries."

Beset by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), Hawking did not, as expected, die; but his condition deteriorated even as his reputation rose. He is paralyzed and unable to speak, and can use only a few facial muscles." For a time, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card," he writes on his Web site. "It is pretty difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper."

Then Walt Woltosz, a computer expert in California, sent him a computer program he had written. Called Equalizer, it allowed Hawking to select words from a series of menus on the screen by pressing a switch in his hand or operating one with head or eye movement. “When I have built up what I want to say," as he writes, "I can send it to a speech synthesizer. At first, I just ran the Equalizer program on a desk top computer."

I believe that was the laptop I lifted 13 years ago. Later, David Mason of Cambridge Adaptive Communication fitted a small portable computer and a speech synthesizer to his wheelchair. Back in the baggage area again, I picked up the baby, and suddenly saw Hawking being wheeled away across the floor. I hesitated, then caught up and introduced myself and my tiny, blank-faced son.

"I'm sorry, I'm the person who stole your computer!" I said. I glanced at the baby. "But some day I am going to be able to tell him that, for a few minutes, we held all the secrets of the universe."

Hawking seemed to smile, and tilted his head down in what I have always believed was a courtly nod.

Alison Osius is a freelance writer living in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor.