For a moment, forget that Stephen Hawking is renowned as the Einstein of our time. Pretend no one cares what he thinks about black holes and new universes, collapsing stars and the beginning of existence itself.
Also, let's not dwell too much on his inability to speak or move except through a computerized speech synthesizer and a motorized wheelchair. He communicates and he gets around, as Utahns will learn when he returns to Salt Lake City July 17.Instead, let us consider: What is Hawking like as a person? "Once you get past the computer thing, he's really a neat, warm person," said Kim Allen, Holladay, mother of Britt Allen, 13, who is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and speaks through a voice synthesizer himself.
The Allen family met Hawking when he came to Salt Lake City in 1993.
Because of the laborious way that Hawking must speak - moving a device with his hand that causes rows of words to flash on his computer screen, selecting one, moving on to more words, telling the synthesizer to string them together into sentences - it takes Hawking a long time to say a sentence.
That means "he was very direct," said Scott Allen, Britt's father. "And that was kind of neat: `Come with me.' "
Hawking made a point of talking with Britt. It was an experience that the awe-struck boy will never forget. "It was really just an incredible experience for Britt and all of us," Scott Allen said.
"That was really unselfish of him to take the time to spend with us, with all the scientists and everybody that was at the meeting."
Scores of other Utahns won't forget Hawking either.
"Stephen, even though he is in the condition that he's in - he has such a presence and such a strong personality that you begin not to notice his disability," recalled Linda Hill, the administrative assistant at Hansen Planetarium who is coordinating the visit.
One of her first impressions during Hawking's 1993 visit was of his arrival, everybody's excitement, the introductions, and "all of a sudden I hear this, `Let's go' . . . and he just took off."
Planetarium staff members had expected the frail Hawking to tire easily, yet he wanted to explore Utah. He first saw the Great Salt Lake, then Kennecott Copper.
"He indicated that since he was 12 years old, he wanted to see it," she said of Utah's inland sea.
After the Kennecott trip, organizers asked Hawking if he wanted to rest. "No, he was ready for dinner!" she said.
Then it was off to watch the movie sensation of the year, "Jurassic Park," which was just opening. By the time the film was over, it was 11 p.m., but Hawking asked what was next on the agenda.
The following day, "he wanted to go shopping," Hill said. He hoped to "walk" to stores via wheelchair, but the staff took him to Trolley Square in a specially equipped van. There he shopped.
"He was looking for a specific thing," a software program for his son. But he couldn't find it in the stores the group visited, so later one of the planetarium officials mailed it to him."
Spending the afternoon with Hawking, "we had no idea what kind of crowd to expect." She describes as one of the most incredible times of her life the moment when she became aware of the huge, enthusiastic crowd outside Abravanel Hall.
This was "Stephen Hawking reaching out to our community and our community reaching to Stephen Hawking," she said.
"We had a few commemorative items for sale. People were just herding around the tables, and they were just throwing money and the attendants were throwing back T-shirts."
The crowd was respectful. Hill remembers that some time later, "I had a man call up to say what a great honor it was to watch `Jurassic Park' with Stephen Hawking," just to be in the same theater with him.
Another man whose mother-in-law had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - the paralytic disease that Hawking has - attended a reception for Hawking and was able to talk to him.
"Stephen said to tell her never to give up and never to stop hoping. And he got it on a tape recorder so his mother-in-law could hear that."
Later, one of Hawking's nurses told Hill the visit to Salt Lake City was well-organized "and that he enjoyed himself more than he had on any other trip."
Sky Bauman, then almost 14, had wished he could meet Hawking for so many years that it seemed like forever. Hoping to be a physicist someday himself, he admired the great theorist and had read his books avidly.
"It was just fabulous to encounter him finally," said the youth, who is now 15. "I planned on writing him a letter, but I never really got to that - and it was much better to meet him in person."
Other than the fact that Hawking is a brilliant physicist, he said, "he was rather humorous, I thought. He made a lot of funny jokes. That's amazing, considering his condition."
The youth asked him a question he had been thinking about for a long time: whether there could be more than one "big bang," the explosion that many cosmologists credit with starting the universe. Hawking took several minutes to answer, moving his fingers on the device that controls his computer.
Just when it seemed that he might not have heard him, Hawking's synthesized voice replied, "There seems to have been only one in the region we can see. But there could be other big bangs in other regions."
"I thought it was a very understandable answer, except that he didn't tell me why that was," he said recently. "It was probably technical anyway. That was something I was interested in, that concept, and he satisfied my curiosity."
Former Salt Lake County Commissioner Jim Bradley, who met Hawking on his last trip, says Hawking "certainly has an aura about him . . .
"He is, one, absolutely accomplished; secondly, has been able to overcome personal disabilities and still keep the romance of the science alive."
Bradley says Hawking possesses "one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen."
Diane Beam, who traveled to England several months ago for a film project the planetarium is carrying out with Hawking, said he seemed to be of the same caliber of health as he was in 1993.
She saw "lots of people coming to his door all day long," students, professors, reporters. "He fit a lot into his schedule and carried on a very demanding schedule, and yet was just as pleasant as ever."
Hawking lives just outside the city of Cambridge. Accompanied by one nurse, he drives his wheelchair across a busy street, parking lot and fen - like a meadow, with cows - every day on his way to Cambridge University.
It is a hazardous trip across "a street that would scare all of us to cross." In fact, one night a few years ago, Hawking was hit while crossing the street. Recently he had a near miss.
In the city of Cambridge, Hawking was recognized by people on the sidewalk.
"It was just amazing," Beam said. "He's an icon in the city."
Folks would stop to say what an honor it was to meet him. "They would start to walk away, believing that he wasn't answering. . . . Then he would answer."
Beam says Hawking's first dedication seems to be his scientific research.
"Stephen continues to try and solve what is called a quantum gravity theory. He has research grad students who are working on their Ph.D's."
Under Hawking's direction, they contribute to his project, which she sees as a significant outgrowth of Newton's law of gravity and Einstein's general relativity theory.
Hawking and a handful of other theorists are working to derive a grand unified theory, which would explain many of the universe's deepest secrets. But it's not as if they are ivory-tower types, unaware of the rest of the world.
In fact, in 1993 Beam attended a cosmologists' conference at which some of the world's greatest researchers lectured, debated and discussed the latest research. She and a University of Utah physicist sat outdoors with a crowd of scientists, including Hawking.
"Everyone was in shorts and T-shirts and tennis shoes, and we heard this one professor with a chalk board discuss Professor Hawking's work, `Do Black Holes Radiate?' "
Hawking was at the front of the group, and the scientists had a lively debate concerning his latest research. Back and forth the discussion went. At its conclusion, "Stephen sends out a message . . . puts out this voice, `So I guess you all agree with me then.' And it was so funny."
To Beam, the synthetic voice seems capable of conveying Hawking's emotions. All sorts of different feelings manage to come through.
For example, there was the moment when Hawking realized that 12,000 people were outside Abravanel Hall, hoping to see him.
"He was thrilled and impressed and touched," she said.