Biology 202
1998 First Web Reports
On Serendip

On trying to understand the universe and life

Zermatt Scutt

I sat there in awe. I was in awe at the man's genius. I was in awe of his life. It could be described by no less than miraculous. I was especially shocked at the way the narrator of the movie, A Brief History of Time, related the discovery of his illness. He explained, "The doctors told him that he had about two and a half years to live and only his heart, his lungs, and his brain would eventually remain functional while everything else in his body would turn into a cabbage"(1) The words echoed through my mind, "Only his heart, his lungs, and his brain...". It seemed a terrifying condition to befall a youth in his early twenties. But amazingly, as the story went on, I soon found out that for him, the beginning of his illness marked a turning point from which his life truly begun. And I was at awe at God. Simply at awe.

His name is Stephen Hawking. He is considered to be one of the greatest minds of Science. He was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, in 1962. He is still alive. He describes his philosophy in life prior to his diagnose in these terms, "My attitude was that nothing was worth an effort"(2) In the movie about his book, A Brief History of Time, it is explained how this philosophy was evident in his scholastic work where, in spite of his genius, he merely maintained an average standing as a student.

Besides his diagnosed condition, the movie also points to another factor which reshaped his philosophy and outlook on life. He found love in the heart of a woman, Jane Wilde, who testified, "Without my faith in God, I wouldn't have been able to live in this situation(her husband's condition); I would not have been able to marry Stephen in the first place because I wouldn't have had the optimism to carry me through and I wouldn't have been able to carry on with it"(3) With these two events, things for stephen began to matter and he began to find meaning in putting forth the effort. His accomplishments, exemplified in a Brief History of Time, certainly testify to that. As the story unravels, he not only lived past two and a half years, he lived. He wrote, he studied, he taught, he questioned as his condition progressed; and still he lives. It is in this sense that I describe his life to be miraculous.

Since I understand how uneasy and overdramatized the description, "miraculous", might seem to some, I propose taking a look at what ALS is and the state to which it renders its victims. I will aim at exploring the nature of this disease in the context of Stephen Hawking's life, his accomplishments as a scientist and his experience with ALS. In the simplest terms, AlS is a motor neuron disease which takes a devastating toll on the body. It is characterized by the death of motor neurons which are used to send messages to the muscle throughout the body. The motor neurons are nerve cells found in the brain and the spinal chord which make up the nervous system. Their role and importance to the muscles in the body is such that without their message, the muscles gradually get weaker until they are rendered basically ineffectual. In essence, the body's motion ability is eliminated. In a sense, the doctors' description, although not very sensitive, were correct; the body gradually turns into a cabbage.

In this state, ALS sufferers, on average, live three to five years. What is also frustrating about ALS is that its cause is not even fully understood. Some studies have pointed to some sort of genetic defect as the cause. Yet, it has also been observed that for the majority of ALS sufferers, the risk of their children developing ALS is similar to that of the general population. The lack of understanding of the cause of the disease also makes it difficult for neurologist to find an effective cure. Although there is no cure, the research done on the disease has produced encouraging treatments for ALS sufferers. The search for treatment focuses on drugs that can intervene in the death or the rate of death of the motor neurons which would in effect allow ALS sufferers to live relatively longer. Practically, as the disease progresses, doctors turn to therapy in trying to stretch the functioning of the muscles to the maximum.

In spite of these efforts, ALS patients eventually become dependent on extensive personal care and technological developments in helping them carry on. A report on ALS states, "As the disease progresses, various assistive devices will help a person with ALS maintain their independence and ensure personal safety... When neck, trunk and shoulder weakness make sitting difficult, cervical collars, perhaps with an additional chest and head strap, provide help... There are also numbers of devices to assist in feeding, dressing and maintaining personal hygiene"(1) With Stephen, he had the support and love of his wife, which helped to see him through these degenerative phases. The movie highlights the point at which Stephen could no longer speak. He resisted any form of therapy to help him communicate in other ways because he saw that as giving up. He went through a very low and was hospitalized at that point. Eventually, however, he accepted it and started communicating through the use of a computer. His assistant at the time recalls how one day he simply requested to be taken out of bed and through the computer he requested for his assistant to help him finish his book.

Interestingly, neurologist explain that the sensory neurons of the body in ALS patients remain intact. As the literature on ALS points out, "Every muscle action is affected, including the those which control swallowing and breathing, as well as the muscles in the arms, legs, back and neck. There is, however, no loss of sensory nerves, so people with ALS retain their sense of feeling, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The mind is not affected by the disease and people with ALS remain fully alert and aware of events"(1) What is then fascinating about Hawking is that as he lost his ability to walk, talk, and write, his brain kept going and working diligently. The focus which kept his mind intrigued and firing turned out to be Cosmology, the field of study dealing with the origin and structure of the universe. Stephen decided that it was worthwhile trying to understand the universe and the existence of life in it.

His wife described how Stephen would be seen in his wheel chair with his head drooped between his lap at times when they would have guest over their house. She says how she would tease Stephen that his guests had no way of knowing that he was actually sitting there with his lap in his head, having a great time figure out physic problems in his mind and that he needed to go and mingle with them. From this commentary, it was later explained how Stephen, as he progressively lost his writing and speaking abilities, developed this great sense of picturing physical problems in his mind and working them out in that way. It is through these kind of mental exercises that the came up with his interesting contribution to the field of Cosmology. In the book, A Brief History of Time, he explained how he struggled with questions such as "Is the universe finite or infinite in extent and content? Who or what governs the laws and constants of physics? Are such laws the product of chance or have they been designed? How do they relate to the support and development of life?"(3) By asking these questions, he has proposed some fascinating and unavoidably controversial theories loaded with philosophical implications.

What interested me most about his theories were the implications about God. In his lecture about A Brief History of time in which he responds to many of Stephen's claims, Dr. Henry Schaefer, a chemist, first points out that, "Now lest anyone be confused, let me state that Hawking strenuously denies charges that he is an atheist. When he is accuse of that he really gets angry and says that such assertions are not true at all. He is an agnostic or deist or something more along these lines. He is certainly not an atheist and not even very sympathetic to atheism"(3) The reason Schaefer felt the need to make this clarification is because of statements found in Stephen's book such as these, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator[the cosmological argument]. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"(3) Schaefer then responds to this by stating, "So Hawking is uncertain about his belief in a god of his own creation. I cannot resist the conclusion that Stephen Hawking's god is too small"(3) Schaefer argues that Stephen's theories must be understood from his presuppositions about God even before he began his studies of Cosmology. Schaefer presented his lecture by looking at Stephen's life as a child growing up. A child, Schaefer describes, who, "By the time he was 13, Hawking's hero was the atheist philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russel"(3) Schaefer continued by identifying the miracle in Hawking's life by how he has survived with ALS for so many years through the support of his loving wife.

From watching the movie, A Brief History of Time, from learning about ALS and its implications in the life of Hawking, from hearing the testimony of his wife Jane, from hearing my philosophy professor recalling how he encountered Stephen in the lavatory being assisted by his care taker right before Stephen was about to give a lecture to an assembly and the humbling effect that sight had on him, from identifying with the thirst for comprehending this universe and life in this universe as Stephen does, I find myself agreeing with Schaefer in his conclusion about Stephen's life and his work. Schaefer concludes, "The irony of the story is that Hawking's professional life currently is devoted to telling a story about the cosmos in which all the elements which make his own life so fascinating-- love, faith, courage and even creative imagination-- disappear from view. Aspiring to know the mind of God, he can imagine nothing more interesting than a set of equations governing the motion of particles. I love these equations too, but they are not the-all and end-all of life!"(3) By the end of the movie, A Brief History of Time, I wondered if Stephen pondered as much upon the miracle of his life as he did on physical problems, trying to understand the universe.


1) What is ALS?

2) Movie, "A Brief History of Time"

3) Science and Faith--a quotes page
Stephen Hawking, The Big Bang, and God

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This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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