My aches and pains

The Compass - - NEWS - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­

As I write, my right hand and left shoul­der are pain­ing. I feel dis­com­fort in my right knee and left an­kle. I have a headache and my nose is stuffy. Per­haps I need to go back to my doc­tor.

There are few books I de­spair of ever read­ing. But “A Brief His­tory of Time from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” writ­ten by Stephen Hawk­ing, is one such book. Time and again, I’ve taken it down from the shelf and started reread­ing it. But all in vain.

Ad­mit­tedly, there are some pas­sages easy to read and un­der­stand. For ex­am­ple, “The even­tual goal of science is to pro­vide a sin­gle the­ory that de­scribes the whole uni­verse.” I get it.

But other pas­sages es­cape me en­tirely. Take this one, for in­stance: “In at­tempt­ing to in­cor­po­rate the un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple into gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity, one has only two quan­ti­ties that can be ad­justed …” Huh? My headache is worse now.

Hawk­ing has been de­scribed as the world’s smartest man, an ac­co­lade he dis­misses as be­ing “rub­bish. It is just me­dia hype. They needed some­body to fill the role model of dis­abled ge­nius.”

A pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge for 30 years, this dis­abled ge­nius has now told the story of his life and ca­reer in “My Brief His­tory.”

Hawk­ing is im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able be­cause of the ef­fects on his body of amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease.

In his last year at Ox­ford, Hawk­ing no­ticed he “was get­ting in­creas­ingly clumsy” and fell down some stairs.

Af­ter mov­ing to Cam­bridge, he “be­came even more clumsy,” fall­ing over while skat­ing and un­able to get up.

He was ad­mit­ted to a hos­pi­tal for test­ing. What­ever it was he had, he fig­ured “they ex­pected it to con­tinue to get worse.”

In an un­der­state­ment, he says, “The re­al­iza­tion that I had an in­cur­able dis­ease that was likely to kill me in a few years was a bit of a shock.”

How­ever, while Hawk­ing was in the hos­pi­tal, a boy in the bed op­po­site him died of leukemia.

“Clearly,” the sci­en­tist writes in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “there were peo­ple who were worse off than me.”

De­spite the “cloud hang­ing over my fu­ture, I found to my sur­prise that I was en­joy­ing life.”

Fall­ing in love, fol­lowed by the birth of chil­dren, along with pro­fes­sional suc­cess, gave him some­thing “to live for.”

He went from us­ing a man­ual wheel­chair to an elec­tric three­wheeled car to an elec­tric wheel­chair.

Mean­while, his pro­gress­ing ill­ness in­cluded “pro­longed chok­ing fits.” His speech be­gan “get­ting more slurred.” Then, a tra­chec­tomy re­moved his abil­ity to speak en­tirely.

For a while, the only way Hawk­ing “could com­mu­ni­cate was to spell out words let­ter by let­ter by rais­ing my eye­brows when some­one pointed to the right let­ter on a spell­ing card.”

He now has a per­sonal com­puter and a speech syn­the­sizer fit­ted to his wheel­chair.

“At first,” he says, “I felt my sci­en­tific ca­reer was over and all that would be left to me would be to stay at home and watch tele­vi­sion.”

Mar­i­tal crises fol­lowed. Hawk­ing un­der­went a la­ryn­gec­tomy, com­pletely sep­a­rat­ing his wind­pipe from his throat. A later health sit­u­a­tion led to a ven­ti­la­tor.

He re­calls that when he con­tracted ALS at 21, he “felt it was very un­fair … At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never re­al­ize the po­ten­tial I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be qui­etly sat­is­fied with my life.” His dis­abil­ity, he sug­gests, has not been a se­ri­ous hand­i­cap in his sci­en­tific work. “In fact,” he says, “in some ways I guess it has been an as­set.”

Re­mem­ber my com­plaints item­ized at the start of this col­umn — pain in my hand and shoul­der, dis­com­fort in my knee and an­kle, a headache and stuffy nose?

Well, af­ter read­ing Hawk­ing’s mem­oir, I won­der why I go to a doc­tor when­ever I have an ache or a pain. As a di­a­betic, I re­al­ize there are times when a visit to a clinic is in order. But for the slight­est ail­ment? Am I a hypochon­driac? If noth­ing else, Hawk­ing’s story may very well be a re­buke to me for too read­ily con­sult­ing a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional when­ever parts of my body refuse to co-op­er­ate. Carpe diem. Per­haps it is high time for me to seize the day and fo­cus on my strengths while down­play­ing my weak­nesses.

Per­haps Hawk­ing should have the fi­nal word: “When you are faced with the pos­si­bil­ity of an early death, it makes you re­al­ize that life is worth liv­ing and that there are lots of things you want to do.”

“My Brief His­tory” is pub­lished by Ban­tam Books of New York. Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at


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