Stephen Hawking starts wheelchair geek hunt

Chris Davies - Jan 3, 2012
Stephen Hawking starts wheelchair geek hunt

Professor Stephen Hawking needs help with his wheels, and he's looking for an assistant handy with a spanner, electronics and at fending off the press. The legendary theoretical physicist is advertising for a graduate assistant to offer technical support for his computer-equipped wheelchair, though it promises to be a challenging role: one of the key responsibilities is "maintenance of "black box" systems with no instruction manual or technical support."

Hawking has a motor neurone disease that has progressively left him almost entirely paralyzed, with the computer integrated into his wheelchair also providing his well-known synthesized voice since a tracheotomy took his own. Part of the challenge for the new "technical assistant" will be maintaining a hodgepodge of systems that have been accrued over the years: for instance, Hawking's original DECtalk DTC01 voice synthesizer has since been replaced with a NeoSpeech app running on one of the regularly-upgraded laptops.

Elsewhere there's a mass of cables, batteries and motors, together with the infrared remote system that Hawking uses to control his home and lab automation. They'll need to be kept online too, as well as helping keep press attention under control and answering questions to avoid the laborious text-to-speech system the professor must use.

The initial job post listing - pasted below - has since been taken down, with the advice that interested parties should keep an eye on this page at the DAMTP. The role is expected to become available in late February.

Graduate Assistant to Stephen Hawking

The above post is expected to become available shortly, with a starting date around 20th-27th February 2012. The salary is expected to be in the region of £25k; the exact value will be confirmed in the near future.

Disclaimer: This is not an official job applications page, however similar it may look! The official applications process will be started when the post has been properly advertised, probably in mid-January. We will not be able to offer the post to anyone on the strength of this unofficial submission alone; we can only direct people to apply through the official channel. However, if you fit our requirements, we would like to hear from you.

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 Prof. Hawking to function within the physics community and as a public speaker.

The original purpose of this position was "to aid Professor Hawking in those areas which he has difficulty due to his disability." The job has since expanded and now includes:

Managing national and international travel for Prof. Hawking and his care team. Expect to spend around 3 months per year abroad!
Development and maintenance of Professor Hawking's communication and speech systems
Procurement and maintenance of his wheelchairs and accessible van
Preparation of lecture graphics and public speaking
Dealing with the media and press
Answering inquiries from the public and maintaining the website

The post requires a wide range of skills, most importantly:
Ability to work under pressure
Maintenance of "black box" systems with no instruction manual or technical support
Computer literacy
Electronics knowledge
Ability to speak to a large audience
Ability to show others how to use complex systems

The role of 'Graduate Assistant to Professor Hawking' is funded as a research post at the University of Cambridge. Normally it has been under a 12 month contract, although recent graduate assistants have stayed on for several years.

[via The Register; Image credit: NASA]

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