Editor’s note: This story was published Sept. 23, 2012. Noyce died in late December 2015.
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When Steve Noyce was little, he sent off four cereal boxtops and a quarter in the mail to get a ring embossed with a glow-in-the-dark symbol of atomic energy. Science and astronomy fascinated the young boy and, when he was 10, he read a college introduction textbook about the universe as it was known then.
He says: “At that point, we thought our galaxy was the universe, and that we had a special place in it.”
He jokes that back then, we knew Earth was not flat and we knew how far away the moon was. However, science has since radically changed our perspective of and our significance in the cosmos.
“Now we know that there are 200 to 400 billion other stars just in our galaxy. And we think that there are (maybe) 200 to 400 billion other galaxies in our universe ...
“The magnitude of things has changed a lot.”
In eighth grade, Steve and a buddy built themselves telescopes, grinding the mirrors by hand, cementing a lifelong interest in astronomy and charting a life course defined by science.
Pragmatically, that meant working with computers. After college, Steve got an unexpected opportunity to learn how to write software and discovered he had an aptitude for problem solving.
“A search for meaning can only be done by solving problems and not giving up and saying that a problem is unsolvable. There are no unsolvable problems in my world — we just need more time.”
This career path brought him, his wife and two children to Boise in 1972, where he eventually worked in management information systems for the state.
“At the time we put a man on the moon, we had less computer power than I have in my office right now. And that was chalked up to computing capability.”
Steve marvels at what human curiosity and exploration have already uncovered — the latest landing on Mars, by the aptly named Curiosity, being a prime and fine example.
“There’s no end to it. ... It’s been the curiosity of people that (has led us) to do (things) better and faster.
“ ... All problems, if you look at things as problems, probably have a solution. ... Someday, if we live long enough, we’ll discover new ways to solve existing problems. But only through science will we discover that.”
Besides being his career and passion, science and computer science have affected Steve’s life in a very personal way. When he was 30 years old, he found himself standing at the top of a long flight of stairs, beset by vertigo and terrified about the descent.
He thought he was having inner-ear problems, so he went to an ear specialist, who sent him to a neurologist. He spent the next 10 years chasing a diagnosis and, in the meantime, went from experiencing vertigo to using a cane; from a cane to a walker and finally, for the past 10 years, a wheelchair. The illness forced him to leave his job in 1995 to a retirement that he never planned on taking.
“I don’t do anything (now) that doesn’t involve thinking. Physically, I’m a wreck.”
Steve, now 71, has a rare, progressive neurological disorder — and he has already outlived the prognosis. It affects, for starters, the part of his brain that controls his ability to move. For a couple of decades now, he has relied on voice-activated computers and electronics, and now e-books, to be his portal to the world — even before the technology became commonplace.
“The thing that made it better for me was simply a matter of luck. I use my brain to get by. People who use their hands to make their careers don’t get by nearly as well. If they lose their ability, they lose their lives.”
Steve can no longer stand or use his hands to, for example, feed himself, and is steadily losing muscular ability throughout his body. “I have to drink beer from a can with a straw, “ he deadpans. His wife of 52 years, Vera, is his caretaker and constant companion. At the end of June, they enlisted the assistance of hospice.
“I went through the typical stages (of grieving) and stayed in denial quite a while. But I’ve done that a lot in life. Like everyone else, I denied being 30. Then I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m just like everybody else.’ I’m going to die; I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have to die. Nobody may want to die, but take a look. ...
“You can deny cancer, you can deny (all you want), but sooner or later, you get to: This is going to happen.”
His solace came from his beloved solar system.
“I realized if the Earth was destroyed today, it wouldn’t even be noticed in the universe because we are, as Carl Sagan once said, a pale blue dot in space. ...
“(So) I used a lot of ‘How can I be very important when I am (just one person) on one planet (out of) probably 400 billion others in my galaxy?’ I started weighing my importance compared to the hugeness of the universe. That’s kind of dumb.
“I fell in love with the universe and gave up on my own ego. ...”
His spiritual path took him to meditation. In his home office where his computer resides, Steve shows the two anchor points of his life’s philosophy: an artist’s conception of the Milky Way spiral, and a statue of the Buddha.
“I believe that everything operates in laws that we may not understand, but they operate naturally. ...
“Buddha was enlightened because he just sat there and pretty soon he understood everything.”
And so now, in the days he has left, Steve spends much of his time reading — and thinking.
“We are a very bright species. For a long time, it bugged me a lot, how one species could be responsible for so much beauty, like Beethoven and Bach and Mozart ... and at the same time be capable of such horror, like Buchenwald and the gas chambers that killed million of Jews. ...”
Our evolution is only recent in geologic time, Steve says, and so we have an inherited tendency to be territorial and sometimes exclusive. But we’re all the same species, and, in fact, uniting behind science can help erase divisions between people and countries.
“We are connected by curiosity. ...
“And so, compassion means to stop being tribal and look at (ourselves) in the universe: a planet of people that get along and look out for each other and don’t kill each other. Do no harm.
“ ... This beautiful planet. ... the only one we know of that supports abundant life ... this pale blue dot.”
He is not afraid of his death anymore. “Why should I be?” he asks.
“I believe there is a life force in the universe, which is undiscovered. It moves around giving life, where life has a possibility of developing. I don’t think that’s a god. I think it’s just a force, like electromagnetic force or light or sound. It’s just present.
“ ... And part of me, if there is a good part, will just go back to the life force. ...”
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Know someone living “from the heart?” Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com.
Steve Noyce’s favorite books
“Social Conquest of Earth” by E.O. Wilson
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson
“The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet” by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan