My memory of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was a Fellow of my college, and a familiar sight when I was a student: my first-year accommodation was in a block just next to his flat, and as I walked or cycled into town I would often see him in his wheelchair heading in the same direction.

I never knew him, though, or ever really had any interaction with him, but he did address a few words to me on one occasion. A very few words, actually — “Thank you” — after a friend and I had carried him, in his chair, up the stairs to the dining hall. I guess the lift must not have been working!

I do, however, have a lasting memory of a talk about ‘baby universes’ that he gave in that same hall soon afterwards, around the time that ‘A Brief History’ was published. We were all conscious, even then, that this was a rare opportunity, and the place was absolutely packed. Whoever was responsible for fire regulations must have been kidnapped and locked in a cupboard somewhere, I think, because the rules must all have been broken by quite large margins.

Anyway, I don’t remember very much about the talk, I’m afraid. He had prepared it in advance and it was played back in his well-known synthesised voice. Half-way through, there was a short pause, and then, “Please wait while I load the second half of my speech.” Disks whirred — probably floppy ones at that time — and then he continued.

At the end, he asked if there were any questions. Somebody asked one, and there was a pause while he composed the response. A long pause. A pause which continued and continued for perhaps two minutes or more as he went through the slow process of selecting words. And then the answer came; just a very short sentence.

I don’t remember much about the questions, or the answers, either. But one image is imprinted very clearly in my memory. A hall packed with hundreds of boisterous and energetic young students, crammed into every corner, having been crammed there for some time, with a bar open and waiting on the floor below… and yet, in the long intervals between a question being asked, and the short answer a considerable period later, you could absolutely have heard a pin drop.

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My nephew Matt is a very talented artist who works for a company that does animations, infographics and other creative graphical things, and I do like his one on “Stephen Hawking’s Big Ideas”, published by the Guardian as part of their ‘Made simple’ series.

It’s certainly more entertaining than most other explanations of Hawking Radiation I’ve encountered!

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