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The hype over Hawking

As physicist Stephen Hawking tours America in advance of his April 26 date with weightlessness, he’s clearly hyped up about the trip, says Zero Gravity Corp. founder Peter Diamandis, who saw the great man up close and personal at the California Institute of Technology last week. "He is so excited about the flight,” Diamandis told me. “It was wonderful to see him smile."

A lot of other folks are excited about Hawking in return: He's just been voted Britain's second most admired man, according to Esquire magazine. (No. 1 was celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.) And bidders have paid as much as $75,100 to have two seats on the same weightless flight that Hawking will take.

The $75,000-plus raised for the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation was just one of the packages that went for charity. Other two-seat packages were provided to the X Prize Foundation, Augie's Quest and Easter Seals, drawing additional tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

Hawking's trip is just one of the developments that have put Zero Gravity Corp. in the news. The company is also offering weightless airline trips in Las Vegas starting this month, and flights will be sold through Sharper Image (through stores, mail-order catalogs and online) beginning May 15.

Meanwhile, the physicist is continuing to combine business and pleasure during his U.S. tour: Over the past month, he's spoken to overflow crowds at the University of California at Berkeley as well as Caltech, and tonight he's speaking at Seattle Center's McCaw Hall. I'll put together a report on the Seattle lecture, "The History of the Universe Backwards" - but in case you missed getting your own ticket, you can watch an hourlong video of the Berkeley talk or read the text transcript.

While I'm on the subject, here's some very important feedback from my earlier article on Stephen Hawking's weightless ride:

Deanna Holt, Springfield, Ill.: "Thank you for your online article regarding Stephen Hawking.  As a special education teacher, I wanted to offer you some words of advice.  In future, you may consider using different words for captions.  Regarding the following:

"'Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking suffers from a degenerative nerve disease that has turned him into a quadriplegic. He is able to speak only via a computerized voice synthesizer that he operates by batting his eyelids.'

"A better choice would have been the following:

"'Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has a degenerative nerve disease that has made him a quadriplegic. He is able to speak via a computerized voice synthesizer that he operates by batting his eyelids.'

"I see a lot of this in the media - you're not the only writer who uses language like this.  Remember, folks with disabilities are folks first.  If they utilize a machine that can enable them to speak - isn't that wonderful?  Being able to speak is a great thing - no matter how it is done.  As far as the suffering ... Mr. Hawking is a 65-year-old, world-famous physicist.  Doesn't sound like he's suffering at all to me.

"Other than that - pretty good article."

Another correspondent said I should have been more specific about Hawking's medical condition:

Jennifer McIntosh: "Thank you for your article on Stephen Hawking's adventure in to weightlessness.  However, something you lacked mentioning in your article disturbed me.  Why do you choose to call Mr. Hawking's condition a  'degenerative nerve disease' and that he is a 'quadriplegic'?  Mr. Hawking is one of few inspirations for people living with ALS.   As a man of science, I would think you would be more specific about such an important detail."

Here's another e-mail in the same vein:

Christopher Martin: "While I found your article on Professor Hawking to be inspiring, I must say that I am pretty upset at that fact you never even mentioned the name of the disease from which he suffers.

"In case you were somehow unaware, Stephen Hawking has ALS. Yet, in your article, you refer to his condition as a 'degenerative nerve disease.' While ALS is certainly a neuro-muscular disease marked by 'nerve degeneration,' you seem to pass over the fact that this is the worst neuro-muscular disease you could ever have. 

"'Degenerative nerve disease' sounds so innocuous and sounds like something that might be treatable. ALS is not a treatable disease. It is a fatal disease, and any 'treatments' are based on hypotheses rather than detailed medical knowledge of the condition.

"ALS is an orphan disease. It has very little financial, pharmaceutical or medical sponsorship for finding a cure. All knowledge about, and work toward, a cure for ALS stem directly from people around the country spreading the word and raising awareness of this horrible disease.

"That is why I honor my father's memory, and the memory of thousands of others, by working as the chairman of the Greater Philadelphia ALS Association Walk to D'Feet ALS. We walk to defeat this fatal disease, just like the Avon people and Susan Komen people walk to defeat breast cancer.

"All we ask from anyone is the same consideration and acknowledgment for our cause that the rest of the charities out there today receive.

"Thank you for your article on Professor Hawking and have a good day."

For what it's worth, I've revised the original article in accordance with the suggestions.