A Day with Stephen Hawking

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, March 28, 2003

The applause dies as the star of the show approaches the microphone. His assistant, a slender 20-something man named Tom Pelly, adjusts the mic, steps aside and waits.

The audience waits, too.

A minute ticks by, then two. The occasional cough or throat-clearing is the only sound to break the silence, which seems interminable.

Finally, a nearly inaudible beep sounds, and a flat, electronic voice asks, “Can you hear me?” The audience, in one expectant voice, responds: “Yes!”

Stephen Hawking has taken the stage.

Seated in a wheelchair with a small computer monitor mounted in front of him, Hawking is an unpreposessing figure. Disabled since the age of 21 with Lou Gehrig’s disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – he could easily be one of life’s casualties, invisible to all.

But Hawking, 61, is, like Gehrig, a hero to millions.

Though he didn’t invent the concept of black holes or the big-bang theory, he has contributed greatly to our understanding of those ideas, and he has been the most successful public champion of them.

His primary popular work, the 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” has sold nearly 10 million copies, been translated into 40 languages and spawned a feature-length documentary.

Thus, Hawking would have been a star no matter what his physical condition. But to have accomplished such momentous intellectual triumphs while being unable to perform even the most basic functions – he cannot talk, write, move his body or even swallow – has made him a hero to many whose grasp of his epochal scientific discoveries is tenuous.

“A lot of his science is over my head,” admits Debbie James of Rancho Cordova, who came to hear a lecture by Hawking at the Mondavi Center on Sunday night. (He speaks again tonight.) “But his story, the odds he’s overcome, is fascinating and inspiring to me.”

Hawking is arguably the most-admired and beloved scientist since Albert Einstein. And, like Einstein, he is well on his way to being a pop-culture icon. The subject of plays, books and movies, he also has appeared in TV commercials for, among others, a Lenscrafters-like chain in his native Britain.

The father of three even guest-starred in 1993 on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in which he played himself in a holographic poker game with Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Lieutenant Commander Data, the computer-brained “Star Trek” android. (A clip of this guest spot was played during his lecture.)

And, befitting his celebrity status, Hawking’s appearance Sunday night was sold out, as is his talk tonight, which is titled “Gödel and the End of Physics.”

The lectures may be popularizations of his concepts, but it is hardly simple stuff, and a quick glance around the Mondavi hall Sunday reveals a number of closed eyes. The people may be absorbing the abstract concepts in their mind’s eyes. But some, it would seem from their nodding heads, are just falling asleep.

Hawking himself is motionless on stage, his head tilted to the right as his expressive eyes roam the audience. His voice synthesizer, which runs on the now-ancient DOS format, “speaks” the words on his computer screen. Because Hawking likes to control the delivery of his pre-written lines, the pauses between sentences “spoken” by the synthesizer can stretch to one, two or even more minutes, even though they were entered into the computer earlier.

He’s alert, but one could have forgiven him if he had dozed off himself. After all, it’s been a long day.

It began around 7 a.m., when he was dressed by his nurse, a lovely, gray-haired Irish woman named Pamela Benson, who has known him and worked with him for more than a decade. She is one of the three full-time nurses Hawking employs. Also part of his traveling group is Paul Davis, one of his four graduate students at Cambridge University.

In addition to the Mondavi lectures, Hawking and his entourage have come to the University of California, Davis, for the Davis Meeting on Cosmic Inflation, a three-day conference on the nature of the expanding universe, which Hawking was instrumental in first describing more than 20 years ago.

The conference has drawn nearly 200 scientists and science reporters from as far away as Germany, Nigeria, Australia and Italy. Their names don’t register much beyond the halls of academe or the pages of Scientific American: Hawking’s colleague, Sir Martin Reese of Cambridge; Lisa Randall of Harvard; Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Andrei Linde of Stanford; and UC Davis’ Andreas Albrecht, a conference organizer.

They may be unfamiliar, but they are several of the top cosmologists in the world. All of them are brilliant minds, and in the course of a day, they are invigorated by a conversation that deals in words, concepts and Greek letters that can quickly numb lesser minds.

In this crowd, Hawking is a celebrity as well, although little deference is shown to him, and his physical needs keep him in the wings – resting, or eating lunch, a long project in itself – during much of it.

As the prior speaker goes through his presentation, Hawking, with a “STOP THE WAR” button peeking out of his shirt pocket, sits in his wheelchair in front of the front row, appearing still to be working on his talk.

“Stephen likes to cut it fine,” says Pelly, watching his employer with a slight smile.

When Hawking, the third speaker of the conference’s first day, takes the floor – with no fanfare, since all in the room are familiar to the others – he begins as usual: “Can you hear me?”

He then launches into a talk that has some members of the group shifting in their seats. To the layman, what he is saying is barely understandable. But basically, he is telling the group of scientists that some of the lines of thinking they are pursuing in their work may, in his opinion, not be worth their time.

Lloyd Knox, a UC Davis professor and one of the conference organizers, says that Hawking’s role here is “one of a deep thinker. He’s working with fundamental issues and asking what the right questions to ask are.”

Guth of MIT, who is a superstar himself among physicists for his landmark book, “The Inflationary Universe,” acknowledges that when he first met Hawking 20 years ago, “Steve was already famous, so in my early days, I was in awe of him.”

And he still has tremendous admiration for Hawking.

“His contributions have continued to be important, and it’s amazing how much work he does, and how much he travels,” Guth says. (Hawking travels about three months a year, Pelly says.)

“And he does have a very good touch in terms of what might interest a popular audience,” Guth adds.

But Guth plays down Hawking’s criticisms on this day.

“We’re all quite aware that there’s no one in this field who’s infallible …. not even Stephen.”

Still, when Hawking arrives at a post-lecture reception with a few dozen Mondavi donors, the silence is reverent, as though a saint had entered backstage, which is painted as black as deep space.

Steve Madeiros, a computer systems auditor in Davis, clutches his dog-eared copy of “A Brief History of Time” and cranes his neck to get a look at Hawking. He seems to understand Hawking’s science, but now he’s looking much more like a starry-eyed fan.

“You just wonder who could come up with these brilliant ideas,” Madeiros says. “You want to meet him.”

As Pelly moves Hawking into the center of the well-dressed, enraptured and awkwardly quiet crowd, a warm English voice booms out in the silence:

“Feel free to talk. It’s OK.”

The voice belongs to Mark Layzell, a relatively new member of Hawking’s entourage, a tall, young caregiver who has the relaxed sense that comes to those who tend to loom over other people.

“It’s the same as anyone else who’s famous,” he says to a visitor. “People don’t know what to say, but … you just need to treat Stephen like an ordinary guy – that’s what he likes.”

As several people shyly take Pelly up on his offer to have their picture taken with Hawking, the conversations grow louder, and the crowd relaxes. Hawking’s smile is warm and endearing, and his admirers grow more comfortable with his presence.

Few actually approach him, however, because talking, for Hawking, is laborious. Even those who know him well, such as Guth, have said that they look forward to speaking with him, although, as Guth said earlier in the day, “it’ll only be a couple of sentences.”

But perhaps the silence in the room is more than simple star-struck fandom. Perhaps it is the weight of the understanding that Hawking is a font of knowledge beyond the understanding of virtually everyone in the room, and of the nearly everyone beyond it – and that renders conversation not only difficult, but pointless.

So the few who move to approach Hawking simply give him a diffident nod, a simple gesture, a word of thanks for the knowledge he’s given them. Or a smile.

And Hawking smiles back.

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