World's Smartest Man? "Rubbish," Replies Hawking, Whose Lecture Drew a Crowd

Terry McDermott and Lily Eng

The following article appeared in the July 2, 1993, issue of The Seattle Times. Reproduced by permission from The Seattle Times.

Students react to Stephen Hawking
Students Aleysa Reed, Mitch Weddle, Waikin Chiu, and Anna Schneider react to an answer given yesterday by Stephen Hawking at Seattle University

It is an odd occasion.

The Opera House overflows with more than 3,000 people, some wearing Windows Workgroup T-shirts, others in suits, ties and summer dresses, all of them laughing with Microsoft Vice President Nathan Myhrvold, who has just noted that their featured speaker's recent book of arcane cosmology outsold Madonna's recent book of her own physiognomy.

"We're going to listen tonight to a man who can sell physics better than Madonna can sell sex," Myhrvold says.

Suddenly, while the laughter swells, under a spotlight in the center of the darkened stage, there is this tiny, bent twig that is Stephen Hawking, physicist.

Just him, his wheelchair, the hiss of empty loudspeakers, and an overhead projector, from which the title of his talk beams:

Black Holes and Baby Universes.

Shortly, Hawking, a man who can't speak, asks, "Can you hear me?" Everyone applauds and settles in for a lecture, which is, in fact, about black holes and baby universes. It is also about Hawking, puckish humor and how he came to be here.

In an age of bizarre celebrity, no figure casts quite the same shadow as Hawking, a 51-year-old English cosmologist, best known in his field for the hypothesis that black holes are not totally black, best known outside it as author of the best-selling physics book of all time, subject of a film biography and, most recently, "Star Trek" guest star.

He was in Seattle yesterday for his talk at the Opera House, a meeting with Bill Gates and another with disabled students at Seattle University. He was brought to town as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, KCTS television, Microsoft and Seattle University.

Hawking was a bright, under-achieving graduate student when he was diagnosed a shaving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling, normally fatal disease of the central nervous system also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Stephen Hawking at Seattle University in 1993
Hawking, invited to Seattle by Microsoft, delighted the audience with his answers.

After a period of depression and despair, Hawking redoubled his work and emerged as one of the world's leading experts on relativity theory, Albert Einstein's description of the way the cosmos functions.

His particular specialty became black holes, large burnt-out stars that have collapsed in on themselves, pulled so densely together that nothing, not even light, was thought to be able to escape from them.

Something like black holes had been predicted for more than 200 years and Einstein's theory stated that such super-dense objects must exist. Hawking's special insight was to imagine if the origin of the universe wasn't simply the reverse of the collapse of a black hole.

Relating black holes to the Big Bang theory secured Hawking's reputation among physicists. His physical condition and later efforts to popularize his cosmology secured his fame. He also was lucky in that he came to prominence just at a time when John Wheeler, an American physicist, had coined the science-fiction-friendly term, black hole.

It was, Wheeler wrote later, a "terminologically trivial but psychologically powerful" description. Hawking, author of the equally-powerfully titled, "A Brief History of Time," last night noted: "The importance in science of a good name should not be underestimated."

Hawking has continued to contribute significantly to his science, even as his physical decline has steepened. He now is able to move only his eyes and a few fingers. He constructs sentences by selecting words one-by-one from computer menus, then sends them out through a voice synthesizer.

Yet he is enmeshed in attempts to unify Einstein's relativity theory - the workings of the world at the largest scale - with quantum mechanics, a description of subatomic activity, the world at the smallest scale.

In his talks and subsequent question-and-answer periods yesterday, Hawking dispelled some of the more fanciful notions connected to black-hole theory. Of the idea that they might be a means of traveling through space, he said no one could survive the turmoil inside one.

"Black holes might be useful for getting rid of garbage or some of one's friends," he said. "However, they would be a country from which no traveler can ever return."

Asked how it felt to be described as the world's smartest man, he said it was "very embarrassing. It is rubbish. It is just media hype. They needed somebody to fill the role model of disabled genius. At least I'm disabled."

He told the disabled students at Seattle U. that muscle power was obsolete, education was paramount, and the human race might soon destroy itself.

Many of the students were agog. Many were goofy, others poignant.

Some were curious about his guest spot on "Star Trek, The Next Generation," where he appeared as himself. Others hit closer to home.

Q: "How do you keep from being depressed?"

A: "I realized that the rest of the world does not want to know whether you are bitter or depressed. You have to be positive if you want sympathy."

Mitch Weddle, 16, has scoliosis. For the past five months, he has been at Shriner's Hospital in Spokane recovering from two surgeries that fused his spine and vertebra together. He spent six hours on the road to hear Hawking.

"An opportunity to see a man like this is very rare. I had to take advantage," the teenager said.

Weddle spent the entire session lying on his left side and absorbing Hawking's answers.

At the end of the meeting, Hawking's assistants passed out his E-mail address so they could send him messages. Weddle proudly showed off the scrap of paper to his parents.

Asked whether Hawking was worth the six-hour trip, Weddle answered, "He was worth every minute."

It is not so clear why 3,000 adults would pay as much as $52 apiece to listen to a man talk about things many of them undoubtedly had scant understanding of.

Mainly, it seems, people buy Hawking's book, go to his movie, come to his lectures, because they, too, would like to know.

The universe, although it's filled with burning objects, is not a warm, comforting place.

One person asked if Hawking believed in astrology. Rubbish, he said. Another asked if he believed in clairvoyant dreams. If he did, he'd be the emperor of Rome, he said. Another asked if he knew the meaning of life.

He wished he did so that he might stop searching, Hawking said.