Wired – Inside Intel’s battle to keep Stephen Hawking talking

August 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Media & Copywriting

Over the weekend of 7-8 January I attended Stephen Hawking’s 70th Birthday Symposium held at Cambridge University. I learnt about science, the cosmos and the very human battle waged to keep one of our generation’s most important scientists in contact with the world. Here is my write-up of that battle for Wired UK.


Inside Intel’s battle to keep Stephen Hawking talking

11 January 12

“I was here in October and I plugged my phone in when I went to bed and when I woke up in the morning it was completely dead. It would not boot, would not charge, would not do anything and I suddenly had the realisation my whole life had collapsed into this little device.”

Justin Rattner could not have begun our conversation more aptly. Intel’s chief technology officer has been at the Mountain View, California company for nearly 40 years. He has two Intel Achievement Awards, stands on its Research and Academic Advisory Councils and has been named one of the 200 individuals currently having the greatest impact on the US computer industry. He also has a passion project: heading up the team that works tirelessly to evolve the technology that keeps Stephen Hawking communicating with the outside world.

“It got started about 15 years ago,” says Rattner, an endearing man with a broad, almost child-like, smile. “Stephen and Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore were at a conference together and Gordon saw the machine Stephen was using had an AMD processor and he said something to the effect of ‘How would you like a real computer?’ and Stephen said ‘Fine, that would be great’. Gordon asked the UK team to get engaged with Stephen and his support folks and provide him with a new Intel-based machine and it has just carried on. As the technology has improved they have continued to upgrade his system.”

Hawking has motor neurone disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), caused by the degeneration of upper and lower neurons in the spinal cord and the cortical neurons that provide their motor functions. He was diagnosed in 1963, shortly after his 21st birthday, and given just a few years to live. Fast-forward five decades and Rattner was in town because the renowned scientist was about to celebrate his 70th birthday and a symposium with friends, family, scholars and noted academics had been arranged by the University of Cambridge in his honour. As if to remind the world of his fragile condition Hawking ultimately missed the event due to ill health, but left arousing pre-recorded speech that looked back on his life, studies, illness and the importance of hope: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet”.

This bout of illness will pass, but for Rattner the challenge of Hawking’s ALS will not. Continue reading

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