Despite having been diagnosed with motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21 and given only three years to live, British cosmotologist Stephen Hawking has beaten the odds and shows no signs of slowing down 50 years later. And although his condition has left him almost entirely paralyzed and forced him to communicates through a speech generating device,* it has never diminished his own strong will to live. As a result, many were surprised when he came out in favor of assisted suicide during a recent interview with the BBC.
Any sort of assisted suicide remains illegal in his native Great Britain.
““We don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?” he questioned. “I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and those who help them should be free from prosecution. However there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and are not being pressured into it or have it done without their knowledge and consent as would have been the case with me.”
In fact he recalled a time when he was put on life support in 1985 after contracting pneumonia and his wife was given the option of pulling the plug. But it was not what he wanted.
And while his own body has atrophied due to his illness, Hawking remains one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds. Nor has his condition prevented him for serving as the Director of Research for the University of Cambridge Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.
In fact, Hawking, himself, feels that his “isolating condition and troubles with communicating have allowed him to focus more on his life’s work – understanding the universe – and could even be an advantage in his field.”
Included in his achievements are a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularities theorems in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation (often referred to as Hawking radiation). He was also the first person to put forth a cosmology “explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.”
“I must admit I do tend to drift off to thinking about physics or black holes when I get left behind in the conversation,” he said. “My condition has also has freed me from teaching or sitting on boring committees and given me more time to think and do research. Theoretical physics is one field where being disabled is not a handicap. It is all in the mind.”
Readers may also be interested to know that Stephen Hawking has been married twice and is the father of three children.
*Hawking is able to “speak” by manipulating a cheek muscle, the movements of which are detected by a sensor on his glasses and sent to a tablet computer on his wheelchair that includes a speech synthesizer. Hawking noted that he is able to perform any task that an able-bodied person can on a tablet computer.