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Last updated: 12 march, 2010 - 12:54 GMT

Taking care of one of the world's greatest brains

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As part of the BBC's SuperPower season, looking at how the internet has changed the world, bbcrussian.com spoke to Sam Blackburn - personal assistant to legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

Sam Blackburn developed the equipment that has enabled Professor Hawking to communicate with the world - the supercomputer and speech synthesizer that helped him bring his groundbreaking ideas to the scientific community, despite being almost completely paralysed.

Previous appliances had used infrared sensors to identify Professor Hawking's words, but the equipment proved too heavy, and was in need of constant configuration every time the lighting changed in a room.

It was Sam Blackburn who found the answer, constructing a more easily secured synthesizer.

In the same year, Sam was involved in the organisation of Professor Hawking's flight in zero gravity - as well as adventures around the world to places usually inaccessable for disabled people, such as Easter Island.

BBCrussian.com's Christopher Delaney talked to Sam Blackburn.


How important is the internet for Stephen Hawking?

One of my predecessors, a man called Tom Kendle, tells me that Stephen Hawking used wireless internet a very long time ago.

Tom was Professor Hawking's graduate assistant in 1992. At the time mobile phones were relatively rare, and using the internet over a mobile phone was pretty much unheard of.

Sam Blackburn

Sam Blackburn designed a number of Professor Hawking's aids

In fact the mobile phone companies, as far as I understand, said it couldn't be done.

Professor Hawking had a box that allowed him to make calls wirelessly. The stroke of genius, of course, was plugging in a modem instead of a fax machine. That allowed him to make a phone call.

He was in Chile at the time on a trip, so it was an international phone made from an airplane if I'm right. They didn't have rules about using mobile phones on airplanes back then because so few people had mobiles.

He was able to check his email, which was very unusual at the time. He could well be one of the very first people who did that.

Has the internet brought benefits to Stephen Hawking's life?

The internet has brought huge benefits because it allows Stephen Hawking to be an ordinary member of the scientific community.

Scientists communicate using email: distributing papers, academic correspondence. It's just what people are expected to use.

While Professor Hawking's rate of speech is incredibly slow, his rate of emailing people is not that slow. It's often been the case that I've asked him something face to face, and it's been quicker for him to email me the answer.

He doesn't really say things spontaneously, because its takes him five minutes to write a short sentence. There is no concept of writing something spontaneously. It's all carefully thought out.

In fact I think that's part of the reason he has such a reputation for always being right. He doesn't say the sorts of things he doesn't actually mean.

What irritates him?

There are a lot of things he doesn't like that you find you end up doing anyway.

The most obvious is completing his sentences. If he is halfway through saying something and it's talking ages, the urge to guess what he is saying is overwhelming.

Sometimes you get it right and it saves about five minutes, and sometimes you get it wrong and it just irritates him.

Have you developed yes/no questions to speak with him?

You will discover ways to narrow down the question.

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time was a breakthrough work

Usually when Professor Hawking wants some attention, the carer will ask him a long list of yes/no questions.

Sometimes it's just common sense. When it's something that no-one would think of, it might take longer.

Have you become more intuitive at guessing what he wants?

It's just a skill of working out how to catergorise these things.

You don't need to work for Stephen Hawking to learn these things. If you play "animal, vegetable, mineral" against your friends, you'll work it out just as easily.

But it's a very interesting way of trying to communicate.

Back to the internet. Having control defies that, does it?

He has an email account that only he looks at. He can sit in a corner quietly sending an email, and only the person he's sending it to need know about that.

It is very important that he has his privacy, because certainly physically there is always someone near him - there is always someone in the same room.

I've seen him shopping online. Obviously that isn't so private, because it would take him ages to spell out his credit card number.

So yes, he does use the internet. I wouldn't say he uses it that much more than the rest of us do, it's just the fact he can use it is the more remarkable.

And the way that he uses it is so much different.

Are there more devices that he can use?

Brain scanning is one of the most interesting.

Everybody thinks of brain surgery and putting electrodes in someone's brain. That is an option - however, it's a very drastic option.

Professor Hawking, being someone that sees his brain as his greatest asset, does not want to try that - at least until all other options have been exhausted.

So we're looking at a sort of skull cap of electrodes. That usually just sits on top of your head. You don't need to shave your head or anything like that.

The massive advantage of that is that if it does work it will always work.

We know that his brain is not affected by his disease. It doesn't matter how much his muscle control degrades - even if he can't move his eyes any more, he will still be able to speak.

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The Power Of The Web has also looked at three students chosen to receive web training from the BBC at a care home for abandoned and disabled children in Thailand. You can read their story click here.

SuperPower: Exploring The Internet

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