As [Daedalus and Icarus] flew the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd leaned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air.
—Thomas Bulfinch, The Fall of Icarus
America is terrified of the black hole. Within a universe that was presumably reordered for the last time with the displacement of the Ptolemaic model in favor of the Copernican, a change that dislodged Earth from the center of the scheme and placed it as one among many secondary objects within the solar system, the black hole represents a limit, an emptiness filled with our cultural anxieties.
The black hole is disorder incarnate. It is, for now, unknown and unknowable--composed of a singlularity so dense that it distorts and attracts completely, that it renders the escape-velocity null--the black hole is a myth that is filled so many of our collective fears: the event horizon may be a kind of death, and the black hole a vehicle toward non-existence; the black hole is perceived as a destroyer of matter, an object that annihilates without creating; the black hole produces distortion, creates a space where normative concepts of light, movement, perception are unhinged. The black hole is a limit, a gateway to the incomprehensible.
So should it is no surprise that perhaps the world's only celebrity astrophysicist, Stephen J. Hawking, a pioneer in the study of black holes, can neither "speak or move," that he is diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease (CNN.com). Hawking's 1988 book A Brief History of Time was a long-standing bestseller; written for a general readership, A Brief History of Time offers an explanation of the universe "from the big bang to black holes," as the cover tells us.
The cover also tells us that the mind capable of conceptualizing the entirety of time and retelling it so that we, the uninitiated, might understand is housed within a prodigious body. Thus, Hawking becomes a sign from antiquity--the oracle, the magician whose incredible powers of intellect or perception are paid for by what is seen as a physical impoverishment. His impairment is the counterweight to his extraordinary intellect. When we see the cover or A Brief History of Time, we see a maxim affirmed. In the juxtaposition of non-normative qualities—extraordinary body, extraordinary intellect—we are reminded that no one can have it all, that excess is compensated with lack, that suffering is the coarse bed from which our most delicate flowers bloom. All of this is untrue, but we believe it.
Now, Stephen Hawking has taken flight. In a widely-publicized event, Stephen Hawking, cloaked in his The Sharper Image-emblazoned flight suit, has experienced zero-gravity aboard a flight chartered from Zero Gravity Corp.
This moment is Hawking's emancipation. As an astrophysicist, Hawking through this flight "walks the walk," experiencing some of the material events which he has written about in theory, and in so doing achieves a kind of supposed union of the body and the mind. In Hawking's flight, we see, in part, a holistic sign; Hawkins becomes the warrior-poet of astrophysics.
Yet would we be so rapt, so full of joy and astonishment, filled with wonder, if it were Einstein afloat in the hold of the airplane? In a word, no. We applaud Hawking because of his impairment. The Associated Press claims that Hawking is the first person with a disability to experience zero gravity (CNN.com). One wonders that no private citizen who has paid for Zero Gravity Corp's service has worn contact lenses, had high blood pressure, was asthmatic, and so on. However, the AP's claim rests on our cultural assumptions of disability—disability looks like Stephen Hawking; those with disabilities are burdened; and the extraordinary measures of modern science hold the key to emancipating those with disabilities.
As published on CNN.com, the AP article continues: "The scientist floated in the air, free of his wheelchair and electronic communication gear for the first time in 40 years." Are we then to believe that Hawking has been in one chair for forty consecutive years, that he is bathed in the chair, that he sleeps in the chair? Just as the flight of Icarus (or Superman, as Zero Gravity Corp's marketing collateral claims) promises freedom from our Earthly burdens, as the physical freedom from gravity is offered as a palliative to the metaphoric weight and gravity of situations and psyches, zero-g flight is framed as the method by which Hawkins is furloughed from the prison of his body.
As we watch handlers tug and pull Hawking's body, rolling him, righting him, we are reminded that in this weightlessness Hakwing is not free. We no longer think of Hawkins as the warrior-poet; instead, we think of telethons, we think of United Way commercials where NFL athletes, signs of mythic corporeality, attend to children with disabilities. In the grin of Hawking, within the frame of media discourse surrounding that grin, we are fed the image of the cripple. In the tube protruding from Hawkins' pants leg, we are reminded of Icarus, of the moral lessons we learn about those who dare fly to close to the sun, to escape the boundaries and the limits nature has established.
As we are meant to do, we look upon Hawking's body, its rigidities and supplenesses, and it becomes our event horizon--the demarcation of a line, a limit, beyond which many of us cannot comprehend, a line that we are afraid to approach, a point with gravity enough to attract us all and render us powerless to escape. Like a black hole, when we see Hawking float obscure; we are unsure about what we are, in fact, witnessing. Thus, Zero G's staff suspends a Newtonian apple beside Hawking, whose body becomes the apple's analogue—both are objects meant to illustrate.
"Physicist Hawking experiences zero gravity." CNN.com. 27 Apr 2007. 28 Apr 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/space/04/26/hawking.flight.ap/index.html