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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Hawking's Tourette's

Hawking has Tourette's. Oh yes, don't you doubt it. Think of it, why else would all his public talks be pre-recorded? They say it is because Steve  can only drive his voice synthesiser at five characters per minute. If you reflect for a moment you will  conclude that simply can't be true. There's Steve solving the Einstein field equations to calculate the entropy divergence of colliding black holes- how is he meant to do that if he can only write five digits per minute? And if the  public facts were not enough to convince you, I can tell you privately that as long ago as 1997 I had written, and he had tested, an optical device-driver that allowed him to speak in real-time through a vocabulary of eyeball movements, somewhat like the strokes of a pen in short-hand.
No, the real reason for the charade of the pre-recorded speech is his tragic development of Tourette's, as if motor neurone disease was not a sufficient burden in itself. Through consultation with Stephen and his family, those of us who act as the guardians of his public image decided that we could not risk the damage that might arise to his noble intellectual persona if his talks were peppered with the whistles, clicks and obscenities that he could  no longer find the power to suppress. But surely it would have been possible for you, people ask, to have implemented an algorithm to strip out the swear words and other ejaculations in real time as he 'spoke'. True, but no algorithm  could have disguised the resulting pauses, and we thought that any hesitations in his speech would have been almost as damaging to Stephen's image as the cursing and monkey noises they replaced.
While the case was easily made for suppressing the evidence of his Tourette's in public, a more subtle moral dilemma confronted us in relation to his work at the university. While they started out with great forbearance and sympathy, the other theoretical physicists at the Cavendish soon became intolerant of Stephen's limited and repetitive repertoire of intrusive and disrespectful sounds, claiming it rendered them  unable to concentrate on their analysis. There were demands made at the senate that the 'voice-box' should be switched-off when Stephen was working alone- a reasonable request, you might think, but a cruel one in actuality. Stephen  had made it abundantly clear to me that the act of uttering the obscenities and other animalistic noises had a profoundly soothing effect, and to switch off his voice-box would be like a physical gag, which surely no-one would allow in this enlightened age. Fortunately a simple solution- headphones- allowed both Stephen and his irritated colleagues to coexist in harmony once more. Stephen is now able to chirrup and swear as he likes when performing his calculations, while his colleagues are undisturbed in performing theirs. And so I continue to improve the lot of mankind wherever I can.

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