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Ellee Seymour

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Stephen Hawking, Master of the Universe

Posted: 10/01/2012 10:07

Sitting in the Cambridge University lecture theatre listening spellbound to the synthesised voice of Prof Stephen Hawking, pre-recorded for his 70th birthday symposium which he was too poorly to attend in person, I was struck by two thoughts:

1. The warmth and humour of his personality as he shared anecdotes about his family and scientific life, humble at times, and his passionate belief that intelligent life exists in the universe where we must colonise.

2. How good his Intel voicebox sounded, especially following recent reports that his speech had slowed to just one word a minute as he finds it increasingly difficult to communicate through an infrared sensor mounted on his cheek; I can only assume the recording was a painstaking feat spread over many hours so it could be delivered flawlessly in 35 minutes.

In fact, nobody knew until the first speech of the day that Prof Hawking, the world renowned scientist famous for his work on the origins of the universe, would not be able to attend on doctor's orders; I believe that the university only became aware of this 10 minutes before the symposium started, that they hoped he would be well enough to bask in the glittering tributes and accolades from his peers and fellow scientists from around the world.

There was naturally huge disappointment that the Master of the Universe himself had to stay away, having recently been discharged from hospital, but the level of excitement remained surprisingly high in spite of this, with Lord Rees confessing that he also shared Prof Hawking's disclosure made during a BBC interview that for him, finding intelligent life in space would excite him the most.

The flurry of excitement increased when the bleached blond locks of Richard Branson stepped into the lecture theatre to join the VIPs at their front row seats; the entrepreneur and cosmologist both share dreams of space travel and exploration, with Branson telling me that he and his family were planning to soar into space within a year, followed by Prof Hawking and others afterwards. I didn't get the chance to ask Lily Cole, who was among the audience, if she had also booked a flight on Virgin Galactic, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, joined his good friend Prof Hawking on his trip to infinity and beyond.

I have summarised some of the highlights from Prof Hawking's inspirational and historical speech; it's a cliche to say you couldn't hear a pin drop, but I can't remember the last time I was present during that kind of silence as we hung on to every word he spoke with his distinctive computerised voice which gave so many fascinating insights into his life and the universe:

Prof Hawking was born in Oxford on 8 January, 1942, exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo.

"My parents didn't believe in the accepted way of drilling things into you, instead you were supposed to learn without realizing you were being taught. In the end, I did learn to read, but not until I was eight."

"My family moved to St Albans, but it proved to be a somewhat stodgy and conservative place compared to Highgate where we were considered normal, but eccentric in St Albans....like most boys, I was embarrassed by my parents, but it never worried them. I think I learned something from them because later in life I have often come up with ideas that have outraged my colleagues."

"I was never more than halfway up the class, it was a bright class. My classwork was very untidy and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. My classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don't know if this bet was ever settled, and, if so, which way it was decided."

"When I came to the last two years of school, I wanted to specialize in mathematics and physics because I thought this was the most fundamental science. Physics and astronomony offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we were here. I also had an inspirational maths teacher, but my father was very much against this. He thought there wouldn't be any jobs for mathematicians except as teachers."

"In the end I have wound up being a professor of mathematics, but I have not had any formal instruction since I left St Albans school at the age of 17. When I used to supervise maths undergraduates, I would keep one week ahead of them with the course." Prof Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years.

"At Oxford I was borderline between getting a first and second class degree. I was interviewed by the examiners to determine which I should get, and they asked me what I wanted to do. I replied I wanted to do research, if they gave me a first I would go to Cambridge, if I only got a second I would stay in Oxford. They gave me a first."

"My work on black holes began with the eureka moment  a few days after the birth of my daughter Lucy."

"I decided to write a popular book (A Brief History in Time).  I thought I might make a modest amount to help support my children at school and the rising costs of my care, but the main reason was because I enjoyed it. During this time I became critically ill with pneumonia and had a tracheotomy, but I put a lot of effort in because I feel it is important for scientists, especially in cosmology, to explain their work. I never expected book to do as well as it did. Not everyone may have finished it, or understood everything they read. But at least they got idea we live in a universe with rational laws that we can discover and understand."

"The laws of science describe how the universe behaves, but to understand the universe at the deepest level, we also need to know whey there is something rather than nothing, why we exist, why this particular set of laws and not some other. I believe the answer is that M-theory predicts that a great  many universes were created out of nothing. These multiple universes can arise naturally from physical law. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible possible states that at later times, long of their creation, much of these states will be unlike universes we observe and quite unsuitable for any form of life. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist."

"We will map the positions of billions of galaxies and with the help of superb computers like Cosmos, we will better understand our place in the universe. Perhaps one day we will be able to use gravitational waves to look right back into the heart of the big bang... although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us, in a sense, lords of creation."

"Most recent advances in cosmology have been achieved from space where there are uninterrupted views of our vast and beautiful universe, but we must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don't think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space and I've been getting my training in early."

"Let me finish by reflecting on the state of the universe; it has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and I'm happy if I have made a small contribution. The fact that we humans who ourselves are mere collections of fundamental particles of nature have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph."

"I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest. So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.  Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don't give up."

We were told that Prof Hawking was tuned in the symposium via a livestream video link, and I wish the audience could have sung a rousing chorus of happy birthday. I'm not sure if aliens celebrate birthdays too, but maybe it is something Prof Hawking could teach them if their lives should one day meet across galaxies!

 

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