by Mary Lee
(KPIX 5) — A researcher for Bay Area tech giant Intel is remembering her special connection with the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, who will be buried this Saturday at a private ceremony in Cambridge, England.
Lama Nachman led a team of researchers who developed innovative technology to help him communicate, after losing almost all muscle function due to ALS.
Nachman first met the famous physicist Stephen Hawking back in 2011. “Initially when we started, I always looked up to him. I think he’s one of the most brilliant minds on Earth,” said Nachman. “It was like, Oh my God! I’m actually seeing Stephen!”
Nachman would come to spend a week at a time with him in his home in Cambridge several times a year to observe his everyday life and to understand his unique challenges and needs.
“Initially when he started using the system he could push a button because he could use his hand. But then later, he couldn’t use his hand so he can’t push a button. So how can we simulate a push of a button?,” said Nachman. “So the way he was doing it was by moving his cheek. So every time he moved his cheek up, there was a sensor that sat on his glasses that detected that movement and emulated a push button.”
One of the biggest things Stephen struggled with was something very simple. Just opening a file would take him several minutes. Even during her vacation to Italy, Nachman was determined to figure it out for him.
“I’m sitting in my hotel room in the middle of the night thinking, ‘What could have made this work?’ … I thought of something and called the person who was actually doing the design who was the software engineer on the project and said, ‘Can we try this other thing?’ And you know he was was able to flip this around in one day,” said Nachman. “I stopped by on my way back and tried it and it just worked! I almost cried!”
When she heard of Stephen Hawking’s passing, she said at first, she couldn’t believe it.
“The fact that he’s had 50 years was the unusual thing, right? But for me, he came so close to death so many times, that I almost – I believed he was invincible. I was convinced that Stephen would outlive me,” she said.
To Nachman, Hawking was more than just a renowned scientist. He was a friend.
“One of the things his TA said that really stuck with me is that he said, ‘You know, there were so many people that came and went, and you guys were the only people who stuck around and that’s why you figured out what was needed to be done … You were always there,” said Nachman. “It was that passion that we all felt. I don’t think I’ll ever – as much as I am excited about so much research – and we drive so much innovation and amazing research – there is nothing that touched my soul the way this project did. And I don’t think there will be another one.”
Nachman was supposed to be in Cambridge this week to work with Hawking, as researchers were going to test out a new sensor for him. She said observing Hawking’s patience while researchers would test out equipment for hours taught her to be a more patient person herself.