Wanted: genius to help Stephen Hawking (physics skills not needed)


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The Independent Online

Wanted: a computer-literate graduate with a screwdriver who can maintain the wheelchair of the world’s most famous living physicist – without the help of an instruction manual. Academics need not apply.

Professor Stephen Hawking is looking for a technical assistant to help him maintain and operate his custom-built wheelchair and the computer-controlled voice synthesiser through which he speaks.

The successful applicant will be paid a salary of around £25,000 and can expect to spend about three months a year overseas with the Cambridge cosmologist and his small team of full-time carers, while he is touring abroad.

Although Professor Hawking is looking for a university graduate and the job is officially funded by the University of Cambridge as a research post, he makes it clear that he does not want a theoretical physics researcher.

“The post is more accurately described by the title ‘Technical Assistant to Stephen Hawking’. It is NOT a PhD or Post-Doc position for academics looking to study physics, but a purely technical post to allow Professor Hawking to function within the physics community and as a public speaker,” says the job advert posted on his website.

Professor Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease and is almost completely paralysed, deploys his customary humour by displaying a photograph of the complex electronics at the back of his wheelchair with the challenge: “Could you maintain this?...If your answer is ‘Yes’, we’d like to hear from you!”

Originally, the post of technical assistant was designed to help the physicist in those areas where he has difficulty due to his disability. However, the job has now expanded to include managing his travel itinerary, preparing his lecture graphics and dealing with enquiries from the media and the public.

A successful candidate will however also have to show that they have the ability to maintain “black box” systems with no instruction manual or technical support – which appears to be a reference to his one-off wheelchair, which has no written instructions.

Professor Hawking, who celebrates his 70th birthday on 8 January, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and was not expected to live more than a few years. He gradually lost the use of his legs and arms and lost his voice in 1985 following an emergency tracheotomy.

Since then, Professor Hawking talks through a computer-activated voice synthesiser which he operates with a switch controlled by a finger. The switch stops a moving cursor on a screen to select words which he uses to build up sentences that can then be sent to the voice synthesiser.

“I can save what I write to disk….I can write equations in words, and the program translates them into symbols, and prints them out on paper in the appropriate type,” Professor Hawking says on his website.

“I can then send it to the speech synthesiser, a sentence at a time. It works quite well, and I can try out the lecture, and polish it, before I give it,” he says.

The technical assistant’s post will be formally advertised by the university in January and the job will start at the end of February.