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High Table at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking

Hemos posted more than 12 years ago | from the talking-with-mc-hawking dept.

Science 219

bughunter writes "Accomplished astrophysicist and SF author Gregory Benford shares a personal account of his recent conversation with Stephen Hawking at Reason Online. As usual, Benford's style is engaging and informal, and this doesn't read like a typical interview. Although the article is short on jargon, Benford and Hawking share insights on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, as such minds are want to do. We even get a glimpse of Cambridge tunnel hacking. Of course, there's also a plug for Hawking's new book, The Universe in a Nutshell."

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Primer Post (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320703)

Jodeos!

Steven Hawkings is (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320704)

a really smart guy

Y con eso que? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320707)

Vos me la comés.. bien bien bien comida vos xD

Steven Hawkings is (-1)

Roto-Rooter Man (520267) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320825)

A fucking fraud [slashdot.org]

Re:Steven Hawkings is (-1)

handybundler (232934) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320925)

You know, one of the nice about running two different OSes is finding that you still have active slashdot accounts cached in your browsers. Kind of gives me a hot gritsy feeling deep down in my pants.

its spelled "wont" (0, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320716)

you wonk. "As such minds are wont to do"

Second Hug A Root Post (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320717)

Huggeth A Root

I saw him on Star Trek playing poker with Einstein (0, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320718)

He was grinning like an idiot just because he had 4 of a kind. Since when are physisists good poker players? They would get eaten alive in a high stakes game. Stick to the formulas, Stephen.

Re:I saw him on Star Trek playing poker with Einst (0, Offtopic)

packeteer (566398) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320762)

silly... cards are just a giant ame of numbers... well for them its not so giant... a physicyst would be the best at cards that i cna think of... counting cards and making estimates on probability is what they are good at...

Re:I saw him on Star Trek playing poker with Einst (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320772)

silly... cards are just a giant ame of numbers... well for them its not so giant... a physicyst would be the best at cards that i cna think of... counting cards and making estimates on probability is what they are good at...

You would be wrong.

Poker (1)

Macrobat (318224) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320795)

Beyond a certain point, familiarity with the game supercedes numerical calculation. The odds of various hands appearing have been computed long ago, and any good card-player has them memorized, even considering wild cards and the like.

After that, it becomes a game of bluffing and applied psychology. Physicists, as a class, do not have the upper hand in a game like that. (Not saying they're handicapped, just that they're not better players simply because they can do math.)

Re:Poker (4, Funny)

Hektor_Troy (262592) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320955)

And this is why Hawkings would rule at poker.

1) He doesn't have any facial give-aways
2) He doesn't have any other physical give-aways
3) His voice can't give him away, as it's the same boring/dreary robot-voice

Combine this with his no-doubt impressive math-skills, he'd only need very little time adjusting his game to the other players give-aways.

Plus he can always distract his oponents by talking physics ;-)

Re:Poker (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320973)

4) When he has a good hand he shits himself.

Re:Poker (2)

Hektor_Troy (262592) | more than 12 years ago | (#3321002)

That would be a pretty nasty give-away, so it doesn't fit in the list I gave.

Re:Poker (2)

Seth Finkelstein (90154) | more than 12 years ago | (#3321005)

You did know that Stephen Hawking appeared in an episode of Star Trek: TNG (playing "Himself, Hologram of" in episode: "Descent: Part 1") [imdb.com] ? And that his scene was playing poker in a Holodeck game consisting of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Data?

Sig: What Happened To The Censorware Project (censorware.org) [sethf.com]

Re:Poker (2)

Hektor_Troy (262592) | more than 12 years ago | (#3321011)

Even though it was mentioned in one of the posts in this thread, I did know that. It's not like I've been living in a cave, even though my mother would ask me to wipe my feet, before I leave my apartment.

getting past the physical limitations (-1, Troll)

CmdrTaco (editor) (564483) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320723)

I think its interesting that one of the (arguably) greatest minds of our time has such physical difficulties. I'm impressed that he is able to have such stimulating conversations with other people (albeit other highly regarded intellectuals) without them getting distracted by the weird syntehsized voice.

Now, this is marginally on topic, but is someone like Hawking an argument for or against evolution by means of natural selection as it occurs today? To the best of my knowledge, he has yet to have children, but still, being married there is always the potential. In prehistoric times, a man suffering from his affliction would have no chance at reproducing, thus eliminating his genetic material from the gene pool. So I guess he material is still in the gene pool, because of the potential to reproduce...

Anyway, Hawking is a great man and if he contributes anything applicable to the regular Joe Citizen's daily life, it should be the fact that a man should not be judged by his appearance, the brightest minds may lay inside deceptive shells.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (1, Offtopic)

dustpuppy (5260) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320739)

Okay ... this comment is off-topic, but I think it would be hillariously funny is CmdrTaco's post got downvoted to -1 as a troll.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320755)

Pretty high user number for the guy who wrote this website isn't it? Check again

Someone with a user id as low as yours... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320765)

should realize that that is not taco.

Re:Someone with a user id as low as yours... (1)

dustpuppy (5260) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320803)

Ahh - yes - good point.

Tis too early in the morning ...

Look at his User #... (1)

Macrobat (318224) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320804)

...he's not the original.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (2)

cheese_wallet (88279) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320743)

He wasn't born that way, Commander Idiot. And most males are physically capable of reproduction at 13 years of age.

Hawking was in his 20's before the disease started to afflict him.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320759)

Just because you got bum raped by your daddy at the sweet age of 13 doesn't mean you were physically capable of reproducing.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320786)

nice

Re:getting past the physical limitations (4, Informative)

Seth Finkelstein (90154) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320898)

Read Profiles Of Courage - Stephen William Hawkings [tripod.com] for inspiration.
I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family, and being successful in my work. This is thanks to the help I have received from Jane, my children, and a large number of other people and organisations. I have been lucky, that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope.

Sig: What Happened To The Censorware Project (censorware.org) [sethf.com]

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320744)

CmdrTaco, you've just opened yourself up for a ton of "physical limitations" barbs, surely to fly off many a /. reader/contributor.

I however enjoy your all your work...Well Done!

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320915)

Man, this "CmdrTaco (editor)" person really is fooling a lot of people, isn't he? Personally, I think that "CmdrTaco on Saturday" had a better idea, I was almost fooled by that one.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320767)

He's apparently married. I'm wondering, if his wife ever gets any, or if so, how the heck he manages to get it on? Kind of hard, I suspect... Does the wheelchar have a "dildo" function?

I wonder how their marriage must "hold up".

Re:getting past the physical limitations (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320927)

ALS only affects muscles, and a certain appendage is powered hydraulically, not by muscles. There is, though, a muscle called Musculus levator penis or some such, but it is not essential.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (2)

Tom Veil (115114) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320792)

Ah, but isn't mankind's (technological) ability to get past these limitations a form of evolution in itself? If intelligence such as is present in Hawking were to be passed on, it could continue to overcome any physical limitations, such as the ones that Dr. Hawking now overcomes.

In any case, I'm not sure if ALS is passed on as a genetic disease. I believe it is, but I could be mistaken. However, some complications have resulted with Dr. Hawking due to a car accident later in life, although ALS seems to be the source of most of his physical limitations.

In any case, I gladly look forward to his new book. "Brief History of Time" is one of the greatest physics books ever written, esp. the 10th Anniversary and Illustrated editions. I'm currently part-way through my second reading, and I am amazed at how clearly Hawking can explain extraordinarily complex topics. I can't wait to see what he has next.

Re:getting past the physical limitations (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320844)

I wish these trolls would quit posting crap like this, and especially with such childish names.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Indicted in Federal District Court (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320724)

The premise that linux is 'revolutionary', and that it will someday supplant the Beast of Redmond as the desktop OS of choice is entirely flawed. The linux craze was a creation by stock market speculators, brokerage houses, and venture capitalists. Their purpose was to pump up the valuations of certain linux-oriented corporations. When their valuations were sufficiently high they dumped their shares and made obscene profits.

The unfortunate thing was the number of highly intelligent people who were swept up in this fraud. I have several friends, respected and published scientists, who put a lot of money in these stocks, and subsequently lost a lot of money. Now that H. Blodgett is being investigated for his role in some of these pump and dump schemes, I wonder how long it will be before the investigation reaches to the upper echelon's of today's linux-biz powerhouses.

Many of you are slow to wake up to this fact, and wishing that it wasn't true only proves your culpability. The truth is obvious in light of these facts. Linux is a fraud. If we look back with an objective eye, it's quite plainly so. The moral high-ground linux once held now has evaporated. If you know someone who is a linux advocate, please bitch slap them, because they should have known better.

Mountains? (0)

DNAspark99 (218197) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320729)

I'm pretty sure a quantum singularity of any size will have a mass a little bit heavier than that of any mountain.

Goddamnit (-1, Offtopic)

NaCh0 (6124) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320735)

I have an account to specifically block Jon Katz stories and comments. But now he has a banner ad about his stupid dogs!!

When will the madness end?

The Universe In a Nutshell (5, Funny)

darthBear (516970) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320740)

but is it published by O'Reilly?

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (3, Funny)

qurob (543434) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320773)


And more importantly, what animal is on the cover?

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (4, Funny)

cybrpnk (94636) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320827)

A male turtle?

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (0, Offtopic)

Shriek (261178) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320871)

An image created in Gimp that is a picture of RMS.

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320891)

A nut, silly.

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (1)

Shriek (261178) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320930)

I thought of that but soon realized a picture of a nut is being reserved for the upcoming title "Nutshell in a Nutshell".

Re:The Universe In a Nutshell (-1, Offtopic)

Frothy Walrus (534163) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320860)

Important Stuff:

    • WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWW

    • mozilla is for fags.

    • you're gay

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who is steven hawker (-1, Troll)

i_am_bill_gates (572570) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320742)

i never heard of this mr. hawker guy, but i bet his book isnt as good as my 'the road ahead' i hope you all run out and purchase it

Hawking needs a High Chair for the High Table (-1)

Proctal Relapse (467579) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320749)

    • WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW

      Lameness filter encountered. Post aborted!

      Reason: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING.

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Re:Hawking needs a High Chair for the High Table (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320763)

Nice move Proctal. You got a horizonal scrollbar on Mozilla.

MOZILLA PAGE WIDENING (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320822)

not me, the parent!

cool eh!

Re:MOZILLA PAGE WIDENING (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320878)

It's just the W's that do it. Nuttin' special. And it'll only pagewidden at lower than 1024px. Meh.

Stephen Hawking never says... (1)

Kickstart70 (531316) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320750)

"You can't get there from here."

The universe in a Nutshell (1, Redundant)

ocie (6659) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320752)

I was disappointed to find out that it wasn't an O'Reilly book.

History repeats itself (4, Interesting)

alewando (854) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320757)

Einstein is well known for opposing theories of black holes and quantum physics (his famous quote about deities not throwing dice comes immediately to mind), and Hawking has spent the greater part of the second half of the twentieth century and now the twenty first century exploring black holes.

But of course Hawking might be making the same mistake Einstein made in opposing black hole theory, this time regarding gravistar theory [sciforums.com] . The jury is still out on gravistars, but the potential for undoing all the "discoveries" Hawking has spent his life pursuing is real.

It's a cautionary note, and one Hawking would be loathe to ignore. Certainly, we remember Einstein for his theories of relativity, but how many remember anything he accomplished in the second half of his career? The short answer is he accomplished very little, spending his days sailing his little boat around instead of charting new scientific milestones.

Hawking has the very real potential to be relegated to the dustbin of history as a great scientific mind led astray on fruitless theoretical paths. It'd be a shame, but there it is. Let's hope that unlike Einstein, Hawking is better prepared to adapt to whatever the future holds.

Re:History repeats itself (1)

LoveShack (190582) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320819)

I'm confused...what, exactly, is wrong with sailing a little boat around? Sounds like a rather enjoyable hobby to me. And I'm sure that Mr. Einstein had a great time with it. I could be wrong, but it seems that at some point, you would just stop caring about being a part of history. Escaping to a little boat would be nice indeed.

Re:History repeats itself (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320829)

very good point. hawking should stop whatever he is researching now, and start looking into what you think is important.

give me a break. if it is so obvious to you what the answers are, why dont you figure them out and publish them?

yes, einstein did disagree with scientific theories that turned out to be legitimate, but that does not diminish his contribution at all. to claim it does is just ignorant. personally, i am glad to see that he made a mistake or too - makes me feel like i have at least a little chance.

Re:History repeats itself (4, Insightful)

HorsePunchKid (306850) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320845)

I'm not going to completely disagree with you, but I do think it's rather unfair to suggest Einstein was unproductive after publishing his theories of relativity. In particular, he played an important part in the early interpretations of quantum mechanics (as opposed to the formulations). One of the truly astounding thought experiments he (along with Podolsky and Rosen) came up with is still being sorted out. Essentially he first recognized the problems with assuming local realism; that it is in some sense possible for quantum entities to communicate faster than the speed of light. The thought experiment was later refined by J. S. Bell, to whom the idea of exploiting this quantum entanglement is now popularly attributed. This is just one of many conceptual contributions Einstein made to the early development of quantum physics. (Google can find you much more information about Bell's experiment and Einstein's hand in it, along with a better description of exactly why the EPR experiment is so mind-bending.) On a different note, I believe he also became very politically active, with the rise of the Nazi regime in that era, but I'm not really qualified to comment on that.

Re:History repeats itself (1)

mlylecarlin (552855) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320947)

Hardy pointed out that no mathematician of record has done anything really brilliant after age 50. I think it's safe to say the same thing about physicists.

I'll be money you won't hear anything incredible from Hawking anymore.

mlylecarlin

The Universe in a Nutshell? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320758)

Why did it call it that?

Couldn't he get IDG permission to call it The Univers for Dummies?

Oh yeah, he's a real genius (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320760)

If Hawking is so damn smart, why can't he use his legs?

How Hawking was typing (4, Funny)

RFC959 (121594) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320769)

Marilyn Monroe. I mentioned her, and Stephen responded instantly, tapping one-handed on his keyboard...
Um...

Never mind.

Re:How Hawking was typing (1)

Jonny 290 (260890) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320972)

s/tapping/fapping

Hey, even great minds need to rub one out now and then.

Hum. (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320771)

How much of this actually took place in the conversation, and how much is just the author attempting to summarize current interesting stuff in the world of physics using a conversation with Stephen Hawking as a framing device?

I mean, it really feels like the latter. I find it hard to believe that Hawking, talking to another physisist, would bother, for example, going into detail explaining what planck time is.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, and it was an interesting read. But it was kind of irritating and clumsy the way that the story seemed like nothing more than a framing device to the author (Did anyone else read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?), and everything they discussed seemed smoothed out and dumbed down and simplified to its bare essentials so that people like, well.. so that people like me could understand it. Kind of like the way that the author describes hawking's new book.
I guess i shouldn't complain, since it was better than i could have done, but i wish he'd just repeated stuff and then explained on the side, subtitle style, instead of inserting the layman's explanations into the conversation (assuming, of course, that this was actually what he did..)

Can anyone recommend something i could read if i'm a casual observer curious about what's going on in physics, but who would like a little more depth than this? Like, just so that things aren't so skimmed over that they just seem like crackpot, randomly selected theories with no basis in anything (which of course it seems this way if you don't mention why, mathematically, they came to these conclusions...). I mean, if i want shallow summaries of the physics community, i always have Discover :)

Not "want"... (3, Informative)

cybrpnk (94636) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320775)

...but "wont". As such minds are WONT to do.

Re:Not "want"... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320801)

Well, gee ... that begs the question, why won't they?

Re:Not "want"... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320901)

Hehehe. I was so thinking that.

Damn, Hemos - you're so ~cute~ when you try and sound smart.

I'm no Hawking, BUT a dictionary I can handle (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320777)

want: nt Pronunciation Key (wnt, wônt)
v. wanted, wanting, wants
v. tr.

1.
a.To desire greatly; wish for: They want to leave. She wants a glass of water. See
Synonyms at desire.
b.To desire (someone to do something): I want you to clean your room.
2.
a.To request the presence or assistance of: You are wanted by your office.
b.To seek with intent to capture: The fugitive is wanted by the police.
3.To have an inclination toward; like: Say what you want, but be tactful.
4.Informal. To be obliged (to do something): You want to be careful on the ice.
5.To be without; lack. See Synonyms at lack.
6.To be in need of; require: "'Your hair wants cutting,' said the Hatter" (Lewis Carroll).

wont: Accustomed or used: "The poor man is wont to complain that this is a cold world" (Henry
David Thoreau).
2.Likely: chaotic as holidays are wont to be.

Random English. (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320779)


At the risk of appearing like a slashdot poster, I will have to correct the original poster's useage of "want." He, of course, should have used "wont."

Tony

Re:Random English. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320889)

You're just not hooked on phonics.

This poster's name secretly replaced with Folgers Crystals

Does his wheelchair run Linux? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320784)

Ob. Slashdot question...

And if so... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320904)

...can you imagine a Beowulf cluster of those?

Check Out The Hawkman (5, Funny)

cybrpnk (94636) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320816)

If you've never heard Hawking's musical efforts (I kid you not), now is the time. Check out www.mchawking.com [mchawking.com] and prepare to bust a gut laughing. This is not to be missed.

Re:Check Out The Hawkman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320855)

Those aren't actually done by Hawking.

Re:Check Out The Hawkman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320857)

Need this be linked at EVERY mention of Hawking? I've seen it here many times.

Re:Check Out The Hawkman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320928)

Ehh, it's not worth the trip. It was funny on the surface, but, like so many other sites, it's a thin veneer of high-gloss Armor All on steaming turds. If the lyrics were topical to his work, sure, it would be funny.

Obligatory Hawking link (3, Funny)

legLess (127550) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320828)

Ok, this isn't a karma whore, since I'm already at the cap. It is one of my favorite Onion articles ever, though. I wonder if Steven likes it? I bet he would :)

http://www.theonion.com/onion3123/hawkingexo.html [theonion.com]

Steven Hawking Builds Robotic Exoskeleton
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND--Nobel Prize-winning physicist Stephen Hawking stunned the international scientific community Monday with his latest breakthrough, a remarkably advanced cybernetic exoskeleton designed to replace his wheelchair.

Hawking, paralyzed since early adulthood with the degenerative nerve disease ALS, unveiled the new creation at a press conference at Cambridge University.
"I am faster, stronger... better than before," Hawking told reporters via his suit's built-in voice synthesizer.

Conversation Between Hawking and the Mooninites (2, Funny)

Neil Blender (555885) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320830)

"You and your... third dimension."
"Oh, what about it?"
"Oh, nothing. It's cute. We have five."
"...thousand."
"Yes, five thousand!"
"Don't question it!"

Why you all like Stephen Hawking (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320837)

You all LOVE Stephen Hawking so much because you love to wonder about things. Well I'll give you something to wonder about [consumptionjunction.com]

shocking! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320958)

haha totally outrageous dude!! What will they say next!! Impossible as it seems, singing it makes it even funnier!!!

Hawking, day to day (5, Interesting)

Jormundgard (260749) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320841)

Every so often I see Prof. Hawking in the CMS building while running between classes or eating lunch, always with a nurse or "graduate assistant" (more of a student nurse) nearby. Some days I tell myself that he doesn't look so bad, but other days I just can't bring myself to look at him. It's hard to read interviews with him where he seems so vibrant, with his grinning photograph usually nearby, and then jump to seeing him in person - immutable and motionless, and almost falling apart. It's almost like he's a completely different person.

Re:Hawking, day to day (1)

Red Pointy Tail (127601) | more than 12 years ago | (#3321004)

I have a great respect for what he had achieved, against the odds.

But the least I could do in deference during my 3 undergrad years, was NOT to be tempted to a photo opportunity each time I see him 'strolling' (more like zipping) along the Fens with his nurse... :)

/.'ed (0, Redundant)

CmdrTaco (editor) (564483) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320843)

Stephen Hawking seemed slightly worse, as always. It is a miracle that he has clung to life for over 20 years with Lou Gehrig's disease. Each time I see him I feel that this will be the last, that he cannot hold on to such a thin thread for much longer.

Hawking turned 60 in January. Over the course of his brilliant career, he has worked out many of the basics of black hole physics, including, most strikingly, his prediction that black holes aren't entirely black. Instead, if they have masses equivalent to a mountain's, they radiate particles of all kinds. Smaller holes would disappear in a fizz of radiation -- a signature that astronomers have searched for but so far not found.

The enormous success of Hawking's 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has made him a curious kind of cultural icon. He wonders how many of the starlets and rock stars who mentioned the book on talk shows actually read it.

With his latest book, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam), he aims to remedy the situation with a plethora of friendly illustrations to help readers decipher such complex topics as superstring theory and the nature of time. The trick is translating equations into sentences, no mean feat. The pictures help enormously, though purists deplore them as oversimplified. I feel that any device is justified to span such an abyss of incomprehension.

When I entered Stephen's office at the University of Cambridge, his staff was wary of me, plainly suspecting I was a "civilian" harboring a crank theory of the universe. But I'd called beforehand, and then his secretary recognized me from years past. (I am an astrophysicist and have known Stephen since the 1970s.) When I entered the familiar office his shrunken form lolled in his motorized chair as he stared out, rendered goggle-eyed by his thick glasses -- but a strong spirit animated all he said.

Hawking lost his vocal cords years ago, to an emergency tracheotomy. His gnarled, feeble hands could not hold a pen. For a while after the operation he was completely cut off from the world, an unsettling parallel to those mathematical observers who plunge into black holes, their signals to the outside red-shifted and slowed by gravity's grip to dim, whispering oblivion.

A Silicon Valley firm came to the rescue. Engineers devised tailored, user friendly software and a special keyboard for Hawking. Now his frail hand moved across it with crablike speed. The software is deft, and he could build sentences quickly. I watched him flit through the menu of often-used words on his liquid crystal display, which hung before him in his wheelchair. The invention has been such a success that the Silicon Valley folk now supply units to similarly afflicted people worldwide.

"Please excuse my American accent," the speaker mounted behind the wheelchair said with a California inflection. He coded this entire remark with two keystrokes.

Although I had been here before, I was again struck that a man who had suffered such an agonizing physical decline had on his walls several large posters of a person very nearly his opposite: Marilyn Monroe. I mentioned her, and Stephen responded instantly, tapping one-handed on his keyboard, so that soon his transduced voice replied, "Yes, she's wonderful. Cosmological. I wanted to put a picture of her in my latest book, as a celestial object." I remarked that to me the book was like a French Impressionist painting of a cow, meant to give a glancing essence, not the real, smelly animal. Few would care to savor the details. Stephen took off from this to discuss some ideas currently booting around the physics community about the origin of the universe, the moment just after the Big Bang.

Stephen's great politeness paradoxically made me ill at ease; I was acutely aware of the many demands on his time, and, after all, I had just stopped by to talk shop.

"For years my early work with Roger Penrose seemed to be a disaster for science," Stephen said. "It showed that the universe must have begun with a singularity, if Einstein's general theory of relativity is correct. That appeared to indicate that science could not predict how the universe would begin. The laws would break down at the point of singularity, of infinite density." Mathematics cannot handle physical quantities like density that literally go to infinity. Indeed, the history of 20th century physics was in large measure about how to avoid the infinities that crop up in particle theory and cosmology. The idea of point particles is convenient but leads to profound, puzzling troubles.

I recalled that I had spoken to Stephen about mathematical methods of getting around this problem one evening at a party in King's College. There were analogies to methods in elementary quantum mechanics, methods he was trying to carry over into this surrealistic terrain.

"It now appears that the way the universe began can indeed be determined, using imaginary time," Stephen said. We discussed this a bit. Stephen had been using a mathematical device in which time is replaced, as a notational convenience, by something called imaginary time. This changes the nature of the equations, so he could use some ideas from the tiny quantum world. In the new equations, a kind of tunneling occurs in which the universe, before the Big Bang, has many different ways to pass through the singularity. With imaginary time, one can calculate the chances for a given tunneling path into our early universe after the beginning of time as we know it.

"Sure, the equations can be interpreted that way," I argued, "but it's really a trick, isn't it?"

Stephen said, "Yes, but perhaps an insightful trick."

"We don't have a truly deep understanding of time," I replied, "so replacing real time with imaginary time doesn't mean much to us."

"Imaginary time is a new dimension, at right angles to ordinary, real time," Stephen explained. "Along this axis, if the universe satisfies the 'no boundary' condition, we can do our calculations. This condition says that the universe has no singularities or boundaries in the imaginary direction of time. With the 'no boundary' condition, there will be no beginning or end to imaginary time, just as there is no beginning or end to a path on the surface of the Earth."

"If the path goes all the way around the Earth," I said. "But of course, we don't know that in imaginary time there won't be a boundary."

"My intuition says there will be no blocking in that special coordinate, so our calculations make sense."

"Sense is just the problem, isn't it? Imaginary time is just a mathematical convenience." I shrugged in exasperation at the span between cool mathematical spaces and the immediacy of the raw world; this is a common tension in doing physics. "It's unrelated to how we feel time. The seconds sliding by. Birth and death."

"True. Our minds work in real time, which begins at the Big Bang and will end, if there is a Big Crunch -- which seems unlikely, now, from the latest data showing accelerating expansion. Consciousness would come to an end at a singularity."

"Not a great consolation," I said.

He grinned. "No, but I like the 'no boundary' condition. It seems to imply that the universe will be in a state of high order at one end of real time but will be disordered at the other end of time, so that disorder increases in one direction of time. We define this to be the direction of increasing time. When we record something in our memory, the disorder of the universe will increase. This explains why we remember events only in what we call the past, and not in the future."

"Remember what you predicted in 1980 about final theories like this?" I chided him.

"I suggested we might find a complete unified theory by the end of the century." Stephen made the transponder laugh dryly. "OK, I was wrong. At that time, the best candidate seemed to be N=8 supergravity. Now it appears that this theory may be an approximation to a more fundamental theory, of superstrings. I was a bit optimistic to hope that we would have solved the problem by the end of the century. But I still think there's a 50-50 chance that we will find a complete unified theory in the next 20 years."

"I've always suspected that the structure never ends as we look to smaller and smaller scales -- and neither will the theories," I offered.

"It is possible that there is no ultimate theory of physics at all. Instead, we will keep on discovering new layers of structure. But it seems that physics gets simpler, and more unified, the smaller the scale on which we look. There is an ultimate length scale, the Planck length, below which space-time may just not be defined. So I think there will be a limit to the number of layers of structure, and there will be some ultimate theory, which we will discover if we are smart enough."

"Does it seem likely that we are smart enough?" I asked.

Another grin. "You will have to get your faith elsewhere."

"I can't keep up with the torrent of work on superstrings." Mathematical physics is like music, which a young and zesty spirit can best seize and use, as did Mozart.

"I try," he said modestly.

We began discussing recent work on "baby universes" -- bubbles in space-time. To us large creatures, space-time is like the sea seen from an ocean liner, smooth and serene. Up close, though, on tiny scales, it's waves and bubbles. At extremely fine scales, pockets and bubbles of space-time can form at random, sputtering into being, then dissolving. Arcane details of particle physics suggest that sometimes -- rarely, but inevitably -- these bubbles could grow into a full-fledged universe.

This might have happened a lot at the instant just immediately after the Big Bang. Indeed, some properties of our universe may have been created by the space-time foam that roiled through those infinitesimally split seconds. Studying this possibility uses the "wormhole calculus," which samples the myriad possible frothing bubbles (and their connections, called wormholes).

Averaging over this foam in a mathematical sense, smoothing its properties a bit, Hawking and others have tried to find out whether a final, rather benign universe like ours was an inevitable outcome of that early turbulence. The jury isn't in on this point, and it may be out forever -- the calculations are tough, guided by intuition rather than facts. Deciding whether they meaningfully predict anything is a matter of taste. This recalls Oscar Wilde's aphorism that in matters of great import, style is always more important than substance.

If this picture of the first split second is remotely right, much depends on the energy content of the foam. The energy to blow up these bubbles would be countered by an opposite, negative energy, which comes from the gravitational attraction of all the matter in the bubble. If the outward pressure just balances the inward attraction (a pressure, really) of the mass, then you could get a universe much like ours: rather mild, with space-time not suffering any severe curvature -- what astronomers call "flat." This seems to be so on such relatively tiny scales as our solar system, and flatness prevails even on the size range of our galaxy. Indeed, flatness holds on immense scales, as far as we can yet see.

It turns out that such bubbles could even form right now. An entirely separate space-time could pop into existence in your living room, say. It would start unimaginably small, then balloon to the size of a cantaloupe -- but not before your very eyes, because, for quite fundamental reasons, you couldn't see it.

"They don't form in space, of course," Stephen said. "It doesn't mean anything to ask where in space these things occur." They don't take up room in our universe but rather are their own universes, expanding into spaces that did not exist before.

"They're cut off from us after we make them," I said. "No relics, no fossil?"

"I do not think there could be."

"Like an ungrateful child who doesn't write home." When talking about immensities, I sometimes grasp for something human.

"It would not form in our space, but rather as another space-time."

We discussed for a while some speculations about this that I had put into two novels, Cosm and Timescape. I had used Cambridge and the British scientific style in Timescape, published in 1980, before these ideas became current. I had arrived at them in part from some wide-ranging talks I had enjoyed with Stephen -- all suitably disguised in the books, of course. Such enclosed space-times I had termed "onion universes," since in principle they could have further locked-away space-times inside them, and so on. It is an odd sensation when a guess turns out to have some substance -- as much as anything as gossamer as these ideas can be said to be substantial.

"So they form and go," I mused. "Vanish. Between us and these other universes lies absolute nothingness, in the exact sense -- no space or time, no matter, no energy."

"There can be no way to reach them," his flat voice said. "The gulf between us and them is unbridgeable. It is beyond physics because it is truly nothing, not physical at all."

The mechanical laugh resounded. Stephen likes the tug of the philosophical, and he seemed amused by the notion that universes are simply one of those things that happen from time to time.

His nurse appeared for a bit of physical cleanup, and I left him. Inert confinement to a wheelchair exacts a demeaning toll on one's dignity, but he showed no reaction to the daily round of being cared for by another in the most intimate way. Perhaps for him, it even helps the mind to slip free of the world's rub.

I sat in the common room outside his office, having tea and talking to some of his post-doctoral students. They were working on similarly wild ideas and were quick, witty, and keenly observant as they sipped their strong, dark Ceylonese tea. A sharp crew, perhaps a bit jealous of Stephen's time. They were no doubt wondering who this guy was, nobody they had ever heard of, a Californian with an accent tainted by Southern nuances, somebody who worked in astrophysics and plasma physics -- which, in our age of remorseless specialization, is a province quite remote from theirs. I didn't explain; after all, I really had no formal reason to be there, except that Stephen and I were friends.

Stephen's secretary quietly came out and asked if I would join Stephen for dinner at Caius College. I had intended to eat in my favorite Indian restaurant, where the chicken vindaloo is a purging experience, and then simply rove the walks of Cambridge alone, because I love the atmosphere -- but I instantly assented. Dinner at college high table is one of the legendary experiences of England. I could remember keenly each one I had attended; the repartee is sharper than the cutlery.

We made our way through the cool, atmospheric turns of the colleges, the worn wood and gray stones reflecting the piping of voices and squeaks of rusty bicycles. In misty twilight, student shouts echoing, Stephen's wheelchair jouncing over cobbled streets. He insisted on steering it himself, though his nurse hovered rather nervously. It had never occurred to me just how much of a strain on everyone there can be in round-the-clock care. A few people drifted along behind us, just watching him. "Take no notice," his mechanical voice said. "Many of them come here just to stare at me."

We wound among the ancient stone and manicured gardens, into Caius College. Students entering the dining hall made an eager rumpus. Stephen took the elevator, and I ascended the creaking stairs. The faculty entered after the students, me following with the nurse.

The high table is literally so. They carefully placed Stephen with his back to the long, broad tables of undergraduates. I soon realized that this is because watching him eat, with virtually no lip control, is not appetizing. He follows a set diet that requires no chewing. His nurse must chop up his food and spoon-feed him.

The dinner was noisy, with the year's new undergraduates staring at the famous Hawking's back. Stephen carried on a matter-of-fact, steady flow of conversation through his keyboard.

He had concerns about the physicists' Holy Grail, a unified theory of everything. Even if we could thrash our way through a thicket of mathematics to glimpse its outlines, it might not be specific enough -- that is, we would still have a range of choices. Physics could end up dithering over arcane points, undecided, perhaps far from our particular primate experience. Here is where aesthetics might enter.

"If such a theory is not unique," he said, "one would have to appeal to some outside principle, which one might call God."

I frowned. "Not as the Creator, but as a referee?"

"He would decide which theory was more than just a set of equations, but described a universe that actually exists."

"This one."

"Or maybe all possible theories describe universes that exist!" he said with glee. "It is unclear what it means to say that something exists. In questions like, 'Does there exist a man with two left feet in Cambridge?,' one can answer this by examining every man in Cambridge. But there is no way that one can decide if a universe exists, if one is not inside it."

"The space-time Catch-22."

"So it is not easy to see what meaning can be given to the question, 'Why does the universe exist?' But it is a question that one can't help asking."

As usual, the ability to pose a question simply and clearly in no way implied a similar answer -- or that an answer even existed.

After the dining hall, high table moved to the senior common room upstairs. We relaxed along a long, polished table in comfortable padded chairs, enjoying the traditional crisp walnuts and ancient aromatic port, Cuban cigars, and arch conversation, occasionally skewered by a witty interjection from Stephen.

Someone mentioned American physicist Stephen Weinberg's statement, in The First Three Minutes, that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Stephen doesn't agree, and neither do I, but he has a better reason. "I think it is not meaningful in the first place to say that the universe is pointless, or that it is designed for some purpose."

I asked, "No meaning, then, to the pursuit of meaning?"

"To do that would require one to stand outside the universe, which is not possible."

Again the image of the gulf between the observer and the object of study. "Still," I persisted, "there is amazing structure we can see from inside."

"The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so."

One of the college fellows asked, "Rational faith?"

Stephen tapped quickly. "We shouldn't be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There's not much personal about the laws of physics."

Walnuts eaten, port drunk, cigars smoked, it was time to go. When we left, Stephen guided his wheelchair through the shadowy reaches of the college, indulging my curiosity about a time-honored undergraduate sport: climbing Cambridge.

At night, young men sometimes scramble among the upper reaches of the steepled old buildings, scaling the most difficult points. They risk their necks for the glory of it. Quite out of bounds, of course. Part of the thrill is eluding the proctors who scan the rooftops late at night, listening for the scrape of heels. There is even a booklet about roof climbing, describing its triumphs and centuries-long history.

Stephen took me to a passageway I had been through many times, a shortcut to the Cam River between high, peaked buildings of undergraduate rooms. He said that it was one of the tough events, jumping across that and then scaling a steep, often slick roof beyond.

The passage looked to be about three meters across. I couldn't imagine leaping that gap from the slate-dark roofs. And at night, too. "All that distance?" I asked. My voice echoed in the fog.

"Yes," he said.

"Anybody ever miss?"

"Yes."

"Injured?"

"Yes."

"Killed?"

His eyes twinkled and he gave us a broad smile. "Yes." These Cambridge sorts have the real stuff, all right.

In the cool night Stephen recalled some of his favorite science fiction stories. He rarely read any fiction other than science fiction past the age of 12, he said. "It's really the only fiction that is realistic about our true position in the universe as a whole."

And how much stranger the universe was turning out than even those writers had imagined. Even when they discussed the next billion years, they could not guess the odd theories that would spring up within the next generation of physicists. Now there are speculations that our universe might have 11 dimensions, all told, all but three of space and one of time rolled up to tiny sizes. Will this change cosmology? So far, nobody knows. But the ideas are fun in and of themselves.

A week after my evening at Cambridge, I got from Stephen's secretary a transcript of all his remarks. I have used it here to reproduce his style of conversation. Printed out on his wheelchair computer, his sole link with us, the lines seem to come from a great distance. Across an abyss.

Portraying the flinty faces of science -- daunting complexity twinned with numbing wonder -- demands both craft and art. Some of us paint with fiction. Stephen paints with his impressionistic views of vast, cool mathematical landscapes. To knit together our fraying times, to span the cultural abyss, demands all these approaches -- and more, if we can but invent them.

Stephen has faced daunting physical constrictions with a renewed attack on the large issues, on great sweeps of space and time. Daily he struggles without much fuss against the narrowing that is perhaps the worst element of infirmity. I recalled him rapt with Marilyn, still deeply engaged with life, holding firmly against tides of entropy.

I had learned a good deal from those few days, I realized, and most of it was not at all about cosmology.

Re:/.'ed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320946)

Isn't that like copyright infrinement or something.
Damn I hope taco doesn't get sued.

SlashDOS (0, Offtopic)

Hellen Back (237557) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320862)

I've tried to read 4 Slashdot-linked articles today and am 0 for 4. Somethings got to give

An odd exchange. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320865)

"What are you doing?"
"Adjusting your breasts. You fainted and they shifted all out of whack."

Censored! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320970)

They cut it out! Damn, that's the weirdest thing I've seen for awile.

How do we view Hawkins (2)

sasha328 (203458) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320869)

A very interesting read. I have read A Brief history of Time on a flight from Perth to Sydney once and I found it very interesting, although my mind drifted alot as it did get a bit hard for me to understand specially when he went into some detail of his theories. I wonder how the Universe in a Nutshell compares to A Brief History of Time.
None-the-less, I think Hawkins is an amazing person. (does anyone know if he's knighted?) To be afflicted like him, survive this long and be such an influential person is an inspiration. I wonder what he thinks of euthanasia.

Re:How do we view Hawkins (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320887)

Hawkins?

You, my friend, are an idiot.

Re:How do we view Hawkins (1)

/Idiot\ (71460) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320974)

Shit, man! I know Perth is not close (I'm in Sydney) but it took me _way_ longer than that to digest Nutshell!

History of Time is good. A lot less pictorial but just as lucid. He did a great job of keeping the books seperate in that they are not dependant on each other. Some of the chapters in 'Time are quite short - others no so.

Did the chapter in 'Nutshell about time travel leave anyone else scratching their heads? An island of insanity in a ocean of sence...

Hawking's page (2, Informative)

i like your eyes (571086) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320870)

hawking.org.uk [hawking.org.uk] to learn more on the interviewee

Hawking's Book Club. (1)

altinsel (54917) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320877)

" In the cool night Stephen recalled some of his favorite science fiction stories."

It's a shame he doesn't mention specific science fiction titles that Stephen Hawking liked. I would love to join his book of the month club! Ever since Oprah's club closed, i've been lost at Border's... Anyone know any cool SciFi book discussion web sites?

Re:Hawking's Book Club. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320919)

Sorta cool (but better for fantasy than sci-fi IMHO) is the discussion forums at sffworld.com -
http://www.sffworld.com/cgi-bin/ubb/Ultimate.cgi [sffworld.com]

What a spazz (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320892)

Is that Hawking guy a spazz or what? It makes me sick to even look at him. Total gross out.

Obligatory MC Hawking Link (1)

marko123 (131635) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320896)

http://www.mchawking.com/ [mchawking.com]

Pity about the pop-ups, overs, unders, and throughs, though.

penrose's birthday party (5, Interesting)

everyplace (527571) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320902)

The only time I've been around Hawking in recent memory was at Penrose's 65th birthday party (wow, was that really 5 years ago already?). He seemed pleasant, and thanked Roger for the nice party at the end of the evening.

I will have to agree with Taco's comments though on the fragility of his exterior, but at the same time I feel that it plays into the character that Hawking has become. I can only imagine what being forced to develop one's theories on the world for 30+ years can do to someone's perception of reality. Some of the ideas that Hawking has contributed to the math world couldn't have come from anyone else, and I wonder how much of a result this is from his condition.

Now if only twistor theory would win over super string theory. But that's another issue.

Re:penrose's birthday party (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320989)

Now if only twistor theory would win over super string theory. But that's another issue.

Good Lord! He plays Twister as well?

Re:penrose's birthday party (1)

Quirk (36086) | more than 12 years ago | (#3321009)

Some of the ideas that Hawking has contributed to the math world couldn't have come from anyone else, and I wonder how much of a result this is from his condition.

Didn't the American physicist, Kip Thorne make this point in the film of the same name as Hawking's book, 'A Brief History of Time'?

Heh, Just like an author to write this (1)

Shriek (261178) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320913)

"I remarked that to me the book was like a French Impressionist painting of a cow, meant to give a glancing essence, not the real, smelly animal. Few would care to savor the details."

Now that's the author's way of saying he had a cosmorgasm during the conversation.

Serious though, nice to see Benford having a sense of humor.

42 (2, Funny)

rveno1 (470619) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320917)

"Benford and Hawking share insights on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything."

Um we knoe the answer to this question alredy it is 42!

Wow, good job editors. (0)

Ophidian P. Jones (466787) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320949)

You spout the "Amazon sucks" rhetoric for their one-click patent technology, and then give them free advertising in the story headline? Congrats.

A head of Time (1)

Quirk (36086) | more than 12 years ago | (#3320950)

As far as many, if not all, of my teachers have been concerned I've been on imaginary time since day one.

What, if anything, distinguishes conclusions we might arrive at while passing thru a process from those we might arrive at after having mapped the process. Gregory Bateson in his work 'Mind and Nature' played with the zig zag interplay of process and mapping. Whenever I face the wording of the more recent theories of Physics I'm tugged back to a passage from Robert Graves book the 'White Goddess' wherein he states true insight comes only by way of a skewered glance at the world of facts. Bertrand Russell once commented that to the best of his knowledge there had never been a philosopher-poet, perhaps this is the amalgam we wait upon. The few mathematician-poet's I've read have been obviously deficient in one practise or the other.

Book LInk (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320982)

An Amazon link?

Wide table at Slashdot (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 12 years ago | (#3320993)

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