To boldly go: An evening with Stephen Hawking

“It’s like he’s a rock star,” Alex remarked, as we joined the long queue snaking up the staircase from the entry to the Arthur Goodhart Lecture Theatre in the Law Faculty.

It was Wednesday night on January 24, 2007 and hundreds of people had snapped up seats to hear Professor Stephen Hawking speak on “To boldly go. My life in physics.” Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, was giving the first Gates Distinguished Lecture of 2007.

As I found my place in the packed theatre, I thought “holy prophet” was probably a more appropriate descriptor than “rock star.” There were no screaming fans; instead the lecture theatre of people expressed their awe in absolute silence. When Hawking entered, the only sound was the whirr of his motorised wheelchair.

Over the next hour or so, Hawking described his life in that famous synthesised voice, complete with American accent, despite Hawking being entirely British. Hawking did his undergraduate physics degree at The Other Place – “ ‘A very easy course,’ he observed. ‘When they asked what I would do after I graduated, I said, ‘If you give me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If you give me a Second, I will stay at Oxford.’ ”

Hawking was awarded a First, and Oxford’s loss was Cambridge’s gain.

A Twist of Fate

Hawking is humble about the path he has taken to scientific and popular fame. He explained that it could have been very different had he been granted his first choice of PhD supervisor, Fred Hoyle. Hoyle worked in the then-glamorous field of elementary particle physics. “None of my work from that period would have survived,” Hawking said. Instead, Hawking was diverted into the underdeveloped fields of cosmology and gravitation. This twist of fate meant that Hawking found himself in the centre of the most fundamental of debates on the nature of the universe. Did the universe have a beginning? Does it have a fixed mass or is it steady state, with new mass being created to keep density constant? “It is just as well I wasn’t a student of Hoyle, because then I would have had to defend the Steady State Theory,” Hawking mused. That theory was waiting to be discredited by astronomical observations by 1965.

A turning point came when Hawking began to collaborate with Roger Penrose. Penrose’s work allowed Hawking to realise that if stars could form singularities (points of infinite density and zero volume), then there would be singularities at the beginning of space-time.

“It was a glorious feeling, having a whole field to ourselves. It was unlike particle physics where people are falling over themselves to latch onto the latest theory. They still are.”

Betting on Black Holes

The world that Hawking describes is familiar to all of us who are navigating our way through academic research. He told us of egos and competition, chance discoveries, serendipitous meetings, pointless seminars, absent-minded supervisors, and eureka moments (“I can’t compare it to sex but it lasts longer”).

The only difference between Hawking’s world and ours is that he was making (and losing) bets on the nature of black holes, developing theory far ahead of experimental evidence (and being vindicated when technology finally caught up), and bouncing off other unique minds like Penrose and Feynman. He did all this while living with motor neuron disease. Being unable to move or speak without human and computer help has not stopped Hawking from pioneering new scientific theories, writing best sellers like A Brief History of Time, and starring in three episodes of The Simpsons.

“Professor Hawking,” came the final question of the night. “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?”

Hawking took his moments in time to compose an answer. His helper explained that the professor selects his words by tensing the muscles in his right cheek. The presentation had, of course, been largely pre-composed. Answering our questions that night would take longer.

We, who indulge in txt msg and msn chat language without thinking, were willing to wait. Hawking offered a perfectly composed response:

“Why did you make M-theory so difficult?”

Published in the spring 2007 Gates Cambridge Scholarship newsletter

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