Parental pride–and a lesson in resilience by a brilliant scientist

When I answered my phone this past week, I found myself frequently saying, “Caplan’s Cabbies.” My partner being out of town leaves me ‘in the driver’s seat,’ literally and figuratively, regarding all of the extracurricular activities of my children. As well as the ‘intracurricular’ ones.

One such activity was my son’s school speech contest, held at the school on Friday at 1:15 p.m. The head honcho of Caplan’s Cabbies was up at 6 a.m. (actually a tad later than usual), and off to take my daughter to school by about 7:15. Since my son’s school begins only at 8 a.m., we have been frequenting a bagel-coffee shop for half an hour before heading to his school.

This Friday morning was scheduled to be a very busy one for me, and as I dropped my son off, I promised to be back before his speech–which would be the 12th of 15. I was not sure if I’d make all of the earlier speeches, but was determined to be there for his speech.

There was no exercise time for me this morning. Straight to work for a meeting with a faculty candidate, followed by sequential meetings with students applying for admissions to graduate programs on campus. Combined with the usual and growing pile of other administrative  concerns–and of course running the lab, completing papers, grant and manuscript reviews, and so on…

So far the traffic looked promising, and I was confident that I would make the meeting on time with the faculty candidate at 8:30. And then the phone rang–my son had forgot his ‘nice clothes’ in the backseat of the car (I told him to put it in his backpack). Could Caplan’s Cabbies turn around and bring the clothes back to school?

Using all of my parental superpowers, a series of calculations raced through my mind. London Cabbies beware–Caplan Cabbies have supercomputer brains! Quickly, I realized that there was no way to possibly get him the clothes and get to the meeting on time. Brilliant thinking. Only a genius could figure that out! So I discarded some of my plans and came up with the radical decision: I would get to the meeting on time, but leave the campus even earlier, to give my son his clothes before the start of the competition. Make a short day even shorter. Such is life…

Nonetheless, I was not disappointed. I heard 15 speeches on the topic of “Someone who has overcome.” All of them unique, interesting, well written and researched, and presented to the best of each child’s abilities–in front of a room full of people. No easy task, and certainly a wonderful training exercise for kids to prepare them or perhaps immunize them (?) against the fears of public speaking. A handy skill to master in elementary school.

The winning speech, I can proudly report, belonged to my son.

Eylon-speech 2013

He chose Stephen Hawking as his model for “someone who has overcome.” And for anyone interested, this was the winning speech (below), verbatim. On to the district championships!

How would you feel if you couldn’t talk? When you had a question, you wouldn’t be able to ask it. When you had something important to say, you wouldn’t be able say it. Now think; what if you couldn’t move? You could purposefully move absolutely no muscles except for a little bit of twitching. Think about using the restroom, bathing, eating, and sleeping. You would need to have a personal assistant with you every minute of every day to help you with everything you do!

You would have to be pretty unlucky if you had one of these symptoms, but some people are very unfortunate and have both paralysis and aphasia. One of these people is Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking is a theoretical physicist who was born 1942 in Oxford, England. When he was little, he and his family lived in England. When he attended elementary school he wasn’t always a good student. Even at an early age, he excelled in math and science, but failed at most other subjects. Later, he went to college at Oxford University—one of the world’s best universities—and studied physics for three years saying it was “ boring and easy.” During his years at Oxford, his voice became slightly slurred, and he had many accidents in which he fell down stairs.

He later attended Cambridge University—another world-class university—and continued his studies with theoretical physics. When he was 21 years old, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. ALS is a disease that disables the victim and prevents him from moving any of his muscles. When he was diagnosed, the doctors told him that he had 2 years to live. Today Stephen Hawking is still living, so he has therefore exceeded the doctor’s expectations by about 50 years so far. That’s incredible! It’s too bad Stephen didn’t know that at the time, because when he found out that he had the disease, he sank into a deep depression.

He recovered from the depression when he became engaged to Jane Wilde. He married her and he returned to his studies enthusiastically. Despite the fact that Stephen Hawking suffered from ALS, he still managed to obtain his Ph.D. and later his professorship in the subject of mathematics from Cambridge University. Hawking was and is a brilliant theoretical physicist and mathematician, and discovered the fact that black holes give off radiation, which is now called Hawking Radiation. He has also written many scientific papers, and has published myriad books as well.
How could someone with ALS possibly achieve all this?

Well, first off, we have to think about his courage. Many people with ALS would sink into a depression and barely eat, sleep, and live. As I noted, Stephen Hawking also became depressed. However, he was able to overcome his depression and unbelievably difficult physical situation and he succeeded in becoming a great person. Without trying, he would have never been able to get anywhere. Then there’s also his absolute brilliance, though without courage his great ideas would be stuck in his head forever. Can you imagine how that would feel? He was also determined to continue no matter what. That is the obstacle that Stephen Hawking has overcome.

On a more specific level, we may ask how Stephen Hawking overcomes his communication problems. A man from California Tech engineered a system that allows him to talk. Stephen’s glasses have a light sensor attached to them and a screen in front of him. By twitching his cheeks, he can scroll through words on the screen and choose which words he wants. A voice synthesizer says the words for him. He says that only thing he doesn’t like about it is that it gives him an American accent. In most television shows that he appears in, he is asked questions prior to the show’s airing. On his computer, he can compile and save speeches, phrases, and sentences.

Now we all have to thank Stephen Hawking for what he has done for the world. Not only because of the scientific discoveries that he has made, but also because of the inspiration he has given us all. So the next time you’re down in the dumps, just remember how much Stephen Hawking has accomplished; even through all of his troubles. Just remember that you can still make a difference.



About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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4 Responses to Parental pride–and a lesson in resilience by a brilliant scientist

  1. cromercrox says:

    Well done Caplan Junior.

    On the subject of Caplan’s Cabbies – well, I have a company called Dad’s Taxis, which consists of one ageing Volvo and its owner-driver (me), who is also involved in several other concerns, including (but not exclusively) Dad’s 24-Hour Tech Support; Dad’s Home and Garden Repairs; Dad’s Flat-Pack Assembly Service, and the First National Bank of Dad. To streamline my tax affairs and improve business efficiency I have now fixed it that all these are now trading names of a single entity, Testicular Holdings Ltd. of Cromer.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Hmmm, sounds like a wise business move. I’ll have to ask my accountant about consolidation. To Caplan’s Cabbies and the other related businesses, I’d also have to add: Caplan’s Parental Punching Bag. It’s obviously Caplan’s fault that the snowstorm in Omaha cancelled school and a related extracurricular audition- so just take a jab…

  3. Excellent speech – congratulations to young Master Caplan!

  4. *applause*

    Well done that lad. Extra kudos to you for going the extra mile(s) to get him properly attired.

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