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Hawking radiation and the simplest things

by Paul Gibson

Stephen Hawking radiated cool. He made nerdy physics cool. At the same time, he made disability cool, and synthetic speech sexy.  He was the outstanding physicist of his time. And because of, rather than despite, his communication impairment, he was also the outstanding physics communicator of his time, and perhaps all time.

His time has now run out.  Time was something he understood.  He wrote best selling books on it. At 21 he was given two years. Many disabled people live tenuous lives which can force the sorting out of what really is important. In the disability world, professionals fear giving false hope to disabled people and their families – in doing this they create the real problem  of false despair. He soon got over this. His life and his achievements were to be celebrated.

At the same time, he was able to make inroads into understanding  the forces of universal scale and sub-atomic scale, gravity and nuclear forces.  He was able to predict the theory of the Big Bang, and later the possibility of a Big Bang many times over.  He did pioneering work on black holes, and observed that they weren’t so black, radiating energy until they shrank to nothing. This radiation, called Hawking radiation, is a kind of black hole legacy.  He debated string theory with not-yet-out “aspie” Sheldon Cooper, and a theory of a doughnut shaped universe with Homer Simpson.  

I depart from many non-disabled commentators (and their gaze of inspiration porn) that I have been hearing since Professor Hawking's death.  He was never confined to a wheelchair or a communication device. He was enabled  and liberated by these. He deserves our respect, not our exploitative  praise born out of pity accompanied by inaction.    

He also had to be a pioneer disability rights activist. He had to fight for the simplest things non-disabled people take for granted – a home, the support to get out of bed, the access to move freely around the community, and the right to live.  He and his first wife Jane had to fight for support to raise their family, to get his support needs met in their home. They had to fight for the basics of accessibility to housing, places of education and moving around their streets and universities. They had to fight to keep out of hospitals. When medical professionals wanted to pull the plug, they had to fight against the professionals' assumptions about the value and quality of his life.  He lived another 30 years.

My favourite Stephen Hawking moment  in time is his comment on special schools. He felt privileged to not have been a disabled child and have never had his family persuaded or coerced into accepting that a segregated special school was the place for him. He compared segregated special schools to apartheid. Kids need to grow up and learn alongside the diversity that exists in all our communities. 

Entering a special school can be like crossing an event horizon: the point beyond which there is no possibility of a return to a good life in the community as an adult.  But then there is Hawking radiation.  The disability rights movement agrees with the special-schools-are-apartheid comparison. They will slowly die off, and through this we will learn from their legacy.    

Stephen Hawking leaves behind his own radiating legacy of hope in achieving both the greatest things through the power of his unique intellect, and the simplest things through the tenacity of small-scale disability rights activism. Maybe in our time we can all achieve the latter.

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