Not since Carl Sagan has a scientist captured the world’s fancy like British cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Communication is cumbersome for the 65-year-old University of Cambridge professor and best-selling author, who is paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. A bout with pneumonia 22 years ago forced doctors to perform a tracheotomy, which left Hawking without a voice. Nevertheless, by using a specially designed computer and voice synthesizer, Hawking was able to answer questions posed by Air & Space contributor Irene Klotz on the eve of his weightless flight onboard a Zero-Gravity aircraft in Florida.
A&S: Why do you want to fly in space? Do you think it’s going to change your perspective in some manner?
Hawking: I think the human race doesn’t have a future if it doesn’t go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space. A zero-gravity flight is the first step towards space travel.
A&S: Of all the unanswered mysteries of the world, what would you most like to know?
Hawking: Why the universe is so big, so smooth and yet just right enough for us to exist.
A&S: (remarking on Hawking’s robotic-sounding voice synthesizer) Nice British accent.
Hawking: Most people say my accent is American.
A&S: What is your favorite word?
A&S: Do you think there is intelligent life in the universe? Why would that be important for people to know?