- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND (AP) - British scientist Stephen Hawking has decoded some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe but he has left one mystery unsolved: How he has managed to survive so long with such a crippling disease.

The physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Most people die within a few years of the diagnosis, called motor neurone disease in the U.K. On Sunday, Hawking will turn 70.

“I don’t know of anyone who’s survived this long,” said Ammar Al-Chalabi, director of the Motor Neurone Disease Care and Research Centre at King’s College London. He does not treat Hawking and described his longevity as “extraordinary.”

“It is unusual for (motor neurone disease) patients to survive for decades, but not unheard of,” said Dr. Rup Tandan, a neurology professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Still, Tandan said many longtime survivors had ventilators to breathe for them _ which Hawking does not.

Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. His subsequent theories have revolutionized modern understanding of concepts like black holes and the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.

To mark his birthday Sunday, Cambridge University is holding a public symposium on “The State of the Universe,” featuring talks from 27 leading scientists, including Hawking himself. For 30 years, he held a mathematics post at the university previously held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking retired from that position in 2009 and is now director of research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralyzed and in a wheelchair since 1970. He now communicates only by twitching his right cheek. Since catching pneumonia in 1985, Hawking has needed around-the-clock care and relies on a computer and voice synthesizer to speak.

A tiny infrared sensor sits on his glasses, hooked up to a computer. The sensor detects Hawking’s cheek pulses, which select words displayed on a computer screen. The chosen words are then spoken by the voice synthesizer. It can take up to 10 minutes for Hawking to formulate a single sentence.

“The only trouble is (the voice synthesizer) gives me an American accent,” the Briton wrote on his website.

It took Hawking four years to write his last book, “The Grand Design,” missing his publisher’s original deadline.

Hawking declined requests from The Associated Press for an interview, but his personal assistant, Judith Croasdell, spoke to the AP. She described her boss as remarkably patient.

“The way he communicates can seem frustratingly slow to most people but he doesn’t let that impede his thinking,” she said.

After a brief hospital stay, Hawking told her that he spent the time thinking about black holes.

Hawking typically comes into the office after a big breakfast and reading the news, Croasdell said. “He’s not an early morning person, but he does stay quite late,” until about 7 or 8 in the evening, she said.

Hawking’s rooftop university office is crammed full of memorabilia: family photos, a miniature NASA shuttle, and a signed picture of himself with President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. On top of physics books sits a disability access guide for the university.

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