When I heard that Stephen Hawking was going to be presenting a very rare public lecture, I have to admit I wasted no time at all rushing to snap up a ticket. After all, how could I possibly turn down the chance to hear perhaps the most brilliant, and almost certainly the most famous, scientist of our age giving a public talk? A very rare opportunity indeed.
And so it was, on a Wednesday evening, that I and thousands of others filled the Royal Albert Hall to hear a scientist speak. Well, not quite speak, given Professor Hawking’s unfortunate illness which as we all know means he has to rely upon his famous voice computer to articulate his thoughts for him. It was quite fascinating sitting for over an hour listening intently to that “robotic” voice; so much of communication is not the words but the intonation, the inflection, the delivery, not to mention the whole area of body language. None of this was present, obviously, and yet Professor Hawking engaged the audience and held its attention throughout. Quite an amazing feat. But then again, he is an amazing man, and he shared some insights into his up-bringing and his early years in the talk. For example, who would have guessed that he had not learned how to read until he was 8?
He told us about his parents, the family home and travels, his childhood; of how the one thing he really wanted was a train set, which eventually he got, only to discover that it didn’t work. Not that such a thing stopped him from enjoying it and finding out why it wasn’t working.
He told us about his undergrad days at Oxford, and how through his onwn laziness, he ended up on the borderline between a 2:1 and a 1st which lead to him being called before the board of examiners to help them determine which classification he should get. He told them that if they gave him a 2:1 then he would remain at Oxford, whereas if they gave him a 1st then he would move to Cambridge; “They gave me a 1st”.
He described how he at one stage ended up lecturing undergraduates in mathematics; now, his last formal mathematics tuition had been when he was 17, so he busied himself by reading the notes and ensuring he remained 1 class ahead of the undergraduates he was teaching! He eventually went on to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world.
He told us of his Cambridge days which he spent studying gravitational physics because he felt it was a field which was “ripe for development”. Alas he was soon diagnosed with motor neurone disease, the disease which would ultimately confine him to his now-famous wheelchair and deprive him of his voice and much of his movement. For many people such a diagnosis could well lead them to leaving academia as they came to terms with their new unknown future, but Professor Hawking credits this very illness with providing him with the determination and drive which propelled him forward to excel in his chosen field. As he so brilliantly put it “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.”
The purpose of this talk, though, was not just to share his life story, but also to provide publicity for his latest book, “The Grand Design” which discusses the latest research and findings into M Theory, the latest step on the path to the elusive Grand Unified Theory of Everything; M Theory presents rather than a single model, a series of different yet interlinked models for the universe, different models for different scales and views of the universe, each of which are claimed to accurately represent reality for their particular set of circumstances; Hawking explained that it is like a set of maps of the world, different maps for different scales, none of them able to accurately reflect the whole, but each of which accurately describe their part and each of which works together with the others to provide a map of the whole.
Having described his childhood and up-bringing before seamlessly moving into the minimum physics necessary to take us to M Theory and the new book, Professor Hawking finished his talk by taking three prepared questions, and then the evening was over, all that remained was for us all to leave the Hall and collect our free copies of the book, and to reflect upon what an amazing man we had just been listening to, a man who spent much of his life not knowing how much or how little he had left (more so than most of us do) and who was determined to make the absolute most of whatever life he had and still has. Quite a humbling thought, and a message for us all.