Stephen Hawking and Me

Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor win at Sunday’s Oscars for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has reminded me of a footnote to the story.

I segued to computer science from linguistics and math. In my application to graduate school, I painted an I-meant-to-do-that portrait of my academic path. How I wanted to use computers for natural language understanding. So when I started my master’s at Michigan State in 1979, the department assigned John Eulenberg as my advisor. He was director of the Artificial Language Laboratory.

Dr. Eulenberg’s passion is inventing ways that computers could bring speech to those who couldn’t speak. Starting with designing the system that in 1974 yielded the first use of a speech prosthetic.

My mother, as editor of Physics Today, was always telling me stories from the physics world. Through her, I first learned of Stephen Hawking. And how the only way he had to speak was through his wife and graduate assistants, who could interpret his incoherent speech for the rest of us.

Eventually it dawned on me that Dr. Eulenberg’s work would be perfect for Hawking. I confirmed with my mother that we could connect the two. I asked her not to say anything until I checked with Eulenberg. I didn’t imagine he’d say no. How wonderful would it be to bring a voice back to such a brilliant mind? But one should ask.

I asked. He said no.

As he explained it to me, from his perspective, we’re all of equal worth. Hawking (at the time) didn’t need his help. Thanks to his eminence in the scientific world, he already had human assistance. Eulenberg’s concern was for those who had nothing. Many of whom he has helped over the years.

I accepted his answer and didn’t bring it up again.

About six years later, Hawking lost his voice altogether. He was helped by another speech synthesis pioneer, Walt Woltosz, founder and CEO of Simulations Plus.

So it all worked out. But I wonder what the other path would have been like.

So what do you think?