Stephen Hawking is known for his genius, his theories on black holes, his disabilities, and his distinctive voice. The story behind Perfect Paul, however, is not as widely known.
We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.
Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, which he has pointed out, is exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo. He was born in Oxford, England, rather than at home in the London suburb of Highgate, because it was World War II and London was being bombed.
The family's safety concerns were justified. Hawking said, "We lived in a tall, narrow Victorian house, which my parents had bought very cheaply during the war, when everyone thought London was going to be bombed flat. In fact, a V-2 rocket landed a few houses away from ours. I was away with my mother and sister at the time, but my father was in the house." Luckily, his father was not injured.
Both of Hawking's parents were well educated, having attended the University of Oxford, even though they were not from wealthy families. His father, Frank, had studied medicine, and his mother, Isobel, had studied philosophy, politics, and economics.
In 1950 Hawking's father became head of the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research, so the family moved to St. Albans, Hertfordshire. All members of the family were intelligent and somewhat eccentric: they often sat silently during meals, each absorbed in a book; they didn't worry much about keeping an orderly house; and they got around town in a converted London taxi.
Young Hawking enjoyed spending time with friends, inventing games and building models. They cobbled together a computer using clock parts, an old phone switchboard, and other recycled items. His boyhood nickname was "Einstein." One friend was a novelty because he knew about sports - something the Hawking family had absolutely no interest in following.
Education and Black Holes
In 1959, at the age of 17, Hawking began studying chemistry and physics at Oxford. He felt lonely at first, being younger than the other students, but then he joined the rowing team as a coxswain and earned a reputation as a daredevil who chose risky courses.
He completed his Ph.D. at Cambridge. His 1966 thesis, about black holes, was titled, "Properties of Expanding Universes." Next, working with Sir Roger Penrose, he used mathematics to quantify properties of black holes.
In 1970 Hawking postulated the second law of black hole dynamics, which states that the event horizon of a black hole - the point at which everything gets sucked in - can never get smaller.
In 1973 Hawking applied Einstein's general theory of relativity to principles of quantum mechanics. He also showed that black holes could leak radiation - referred to as Hawking radiation - then explode, and finally disappear.
Hawking was appointed the seventeenth Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, an academic chair at Cambridge University, in 1979. The post had once been held by Sir Isaac Newton, from 1669 to 1792.
In the mid 1980s Hawking, collaborating with Jim Hartle, proposed a model of the universe with no boundaries of space or time.
Hawking published many books and papers over the years, too technical for the average non-scientist, but eventually he realized that a simplified version of his discoveries could educate the mainstream and earn him a nice income. In 1988, "A Brief History of Time" was published. The book sold nine million copies worldwide, resulting in some unexpected celebrity status for Hawking.
In 2004 Hawking reversed his earlier theory that black holes would swallow everything forever, postulating that black holes could never support space travel to other universes.
He has warned that we face dangers here on Earth, most of our own making: "We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet."
Hawking has always been an advocate of space travel and eventual colonization beyond our planet. He once said, "I think we have a good chance of surviving long enough to colonize the solar system."
He has also warned, however, that we should be wary of visitors from other worlds. "If aliens visit us," he said, "the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."
A Bleak Diagnosis and Two Loves
While studying at Oxford, Hawking started having trouble with his physical coordination, falling for no particular reason. When he returned home for Christmas, his family noticed changes in his speech. In 1963, at the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - ALS - commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The progressive condition affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Young Hawking was told he would probably live for only two more years.
Hawking had been seeing Jane Wilde, a friend of his sister, prior to his diagnosis. She was attracted to his eyes and his engaging smile. The two were engaged in 1964 and married in 1965, despite his medical condition. Jane encouraged Hawking to continue with his studies, even though he was depressed and felt hopeless about his future. Eventually the couple had three children - Robert, born in 1967, Lucy, born in 1970, and Timothy, born in 1979.
By the late 1960s, Hawking reluctantly began using crutches; then he was forced to use a wheelchair. Sometimes, when in a rebellious mood, he drove the chair recklessly. He soon lost the ability to write. To compensate for his inability to write equations, he started visualizing them in terms of geometry. This mental adaptation may have stimulated his thoughts to travel in new directions, inspiring him to form his unique and groundbreaking theories about our world.
Jane stood by Hawking as his ALS progressed. He did not want to hire outside caregivers, so Jane managed all of his daily needs and cared for their children. In 1975 Hawking finally agreed to allow a grad student to live with the family and ease Jane's responsibilities. This freed her to work on her thesis and devote more time to music.
Jane met and fell in love with an organist, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, but the two were determined not to break up Stephen and Jane's family. Hawking knew of Jones and did not object to their relationship, as long as Jane still loved him.
By the 1980s the Hawkings' marriage was strained, due to the continued stress of his physical decline and their religious differences. Jane was a devout Christian, while Hawking was not. He once said, "God is the name people give to the reason we are here. But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God." He also specifically stated, "I'm an atheist."
Starting in 1985, Hawking needed round-the-clock professional care, and Jane fought to have that care provided in their home. The media attention Hawking received in 1988, after "A Brief History of Time" was released, was ill-timed. In 1990 he left the family home to be with Elaine Mason, one of the nurses who had been caring for him. In 1995 Hawking divorced Jane and married Elaine.
Sadly, Hawking suffered a series of unexplained injuries during his second marriage. His children had only limited contact with him. Allegations of abuse were made, by Hawking's daughter Lucy and others, but Hawking refused to press charges. In 2006 Hawking divorced Elaine, then began reconciling with his family.
In 1999 Jane had published her memoir, "Music to Move the Stars," about her marriage with Hawking; in 2007 she updated and re-released it, newly titled "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen," including a new section about their amicable reconciliation. The 2014 film, "The Theory of Everything," was inspired by Jane's updated memoir. Hawking, usually reluctant to share his private life with the public, praised the film: "I thought Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of me was very good. He spent time with people with ALS, to be authentic. At times, I almost believed he was me."
In 2007 Hawking and his daughter wrote and published a children's book together, titled "George's Secret Key to the Universe," which explains theoretical physics and features characters that resemble the Hawking family. They released sequels in 2009 and 2011.
Over the years, Hawking has received numerous awards, including a Gravity Research Award, the Albert Einstein Medal, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Wolf Prize, the Fundamental Physics Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He declined a knighthood. In 2002 he was recognized as one of the 100 Greatest Britons.
On occasion Hawking has stepped out of the scientific arena to have a bit of fun with his fame. He once said, "Obviously, because of my disability, I need assistance. But I have always tried to overcome the limitations of my condition and lead as full a life as possible. I have traveled the world, from the Antarctic to zero gravity."
He has guest-starred as himself on several shows, including "The Big Bang Theory," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," and "The Simpsons." "'The Simpsons' appearances were great fun," he said. "But I don't take them too seriously. I think 'The Simpsons' have treated my disability responsibly."
Hawking once considered the notion of acting in a movie. "My ideal role would be a baddie in a James Bond film," he said. "I think the wheelchair and the computer voice would fit the part."
Perfect Paul has been Hawking's constant companion for decades, heard but not seen. Perfect Paul is, in fact, the name given to Hawking's American-accented, synthesized voice.
The voice was created in the 1980s by MIT engineer Dennis Klatt, for a device called DECtalk. A female version of the voice was called Beautiful Betty, and a child's version, Kit the Kid.
Hawking lost the ability to speak in 1985, following an emergency tracheotomy. His first text-to-speech device featured Perfect Paul, and, in later years when his equipment was updated, he insisted on keeping that original voice. Hawking said, "The voice I use is a very old hardware speech synthesizer made in 1986. I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better and because I have identified with it."
Over the years Hawking has communicated via computer and synthesizer, changing input methods as his body weakened. Since 2008 he has used a cheek muscle to select words on a screen - a device attached to his glasses detects his movements via an infrared beam. Communication is slow, but Hawking has learned to be patient.
Perfect Paul has served Hawking well for conversations, lectures, and documentary narration. With Hawking's blessing, the voice has even been sampled on a Pink Floyd album.
The universe is a better place - a better understood place - because of Stephen Hawking. No one would say that ALS is a gift, of course, but perhaps the condition caused Hawking to focus on physics with greater intensity and a fresh perspective.
Regarding his disability and his accomplishments, Stephen Hawking once said, "My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically."