Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science

Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science

Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science

Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science


Prior to the publication of this book, there has been a complete absence of literature on the contributions of deaf men and women in science. Written by a deaf scientist, this book is one of the few syntheses of the issues facing deaf people in a particular field of professional endeavor. Because of the highly invisible nature of deafness, much of the information presented by Lang will be new to readers. His research represents six years of archival search among the historical documents of the deaf communities of Europe, Canada, and the United States. The prominent role that deaf scientists have played in history becomes apparent through Lang's presentation of the accomplishments of these talented and determined men and women. The study of deaf scientists is part of the study of other marginalized groups, and finds parallels in African American and women's studies. The issues surrounding technological development, eugenics, and disabilities in general are several of the important themes of this work.


The impetus for writing Silence of the Spheres was an encounter with Dr. Stephen Hawking in a small conference room in Boston in 1984. Dr. Hawking, a theoretical physicist from Cambridge University, had been invited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to give a presentation on the subject of disabilities and the pursuit of science as a career and, as a former president of the Science Association for Persons with Disabilities, I was honored to attend his session. Dr. Hawking is one of the greatest scientific minds of this century. He has dramatically changed the field of astronomy with his ideas about black holes, singularities, and the birth of the universe. Having contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive motor neuron disease more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease," he was, when I met him, almost completely paralyzed. His speech was not audible to most people, and a young man who worked with him strained to hear his labored words and repeat the message for the benefit of those who had attended his lecture.

At the time I met Dr. Hawking, I had been teaching general physics for fifteen years to deaf college freshmen. With my sign language interpreter, we made an interesting foursome. When Professor Hawking spoke to me, his assistant repeated his words. My interpreter then translated this message to American Sign Language for my benefit. At one point, Dr. Hawking, a man in a wheelchair who has faced the prospect of an early death as a consequence of his disease, glanced up at me and said, "It must be difficult to be deaf."

I was shocked to see those words. As I looked away from my interpreter, my eyes met Hawking's. I did not know what to say to him. He had caught me by surprise, and I observed through nonverbal communication a sensitivity as powerful as his intellect. I awkwardly smiled back.

Later, I began to think about what Stephen Hawking had said. Over the years I had found profound deafness to be at times a minor annoyance. Although it had provided me with continual communicative challenges, I hardly felt my life was "difficult," particularly in comparison to conditions such as Dr. Hawking's. I am sure, however, that my own experiences had led me to this . . .

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