In his Oppenheimer Lecture and in conversations with Berkeley Nobelist George Smoot, the world’s most famous physicist reveals cosmic genius
The vast stage at Zellerbach Hall is almost empty, save for a couple of perfunctory ferns and a microphone center stage, lowered as if for a child’s talent show. the sold-out crowd is buzzing, excited. Stephen Hawking is about to give the annual Oppenheimer Lecture.
At the first sight of Hawking in his wheelchair, the noise drops to a whisper. A sandyhaired assistant rolls his chair to center stage and bends next to him, speaking quietly into his ear. Hawking’s computer beeps, whirs. He wears a brown jacket and trousers, an open-collared shirt. Slightly twisted in his chair, motionless except for an occasional involuntary lift of his right knee, his posture has an odd aspect of martyrdom. It’s the palpable tension between the wasted body—almost inanimate, a discarded puppet—and the intense, fixed gaze. Everyone breathes quietly, watching Hawking. We may all be in the same room, but the evident effort and technology required to move his thoughts into our brains recalibrates how we listen.
Time. Slows. Down.
One is reminded of the famous comparison made by George Smoot, Berkeley cosmology professor and 2006 Nobel Prize co-winner. He likened searching for evidence of the Big Bang’s cosmic background radiation to “listening for a whisper during a noisy beach party while radios blare, waves crash, people yell, dogs bark, and dune buggies roar.”
Hawking, 65, has suffered for more than four decades from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), the progressive degeneration of the central nervous system cells that control voluntary movement. His ability to speak and move has gradually deteriorated, and in 1985, during a bout of pneumonia, he had an emergency tracheostomy. His vocal chords were removed so he could keep breathing.
California engineer Walter Woltosz, whose mother-in-law suffers from ALS, created the software that allows Hawking to communicate. When the physicist twitches his right cheek, the muscle movement is read by an infrared beam. The beam permits Hawking to move through a menu of words onscreen in order to build sentences, which are then sent to the voice synthesizer and spoken by an American-accented male voice. Hawking, who arguably has more to say than most of us, can program 15–20 words a minute. Most English speakers average 150–200 words per minute.
At Zellerbach, the assistant steps away. Silence, heavy and full. And then Hawking’s famous computer-synthesized voice: “Can you hear me?”
Like the Big Bang cosmology he’s helped to popularize, Hawking is at once a given and utterly unknowable. Physicists now posit 11 dimensions and possibly unlimited universes. But we certainly inhabit a world of multiple Stephen Hawkings: Rock Star, Innovator, Disability Champion, Working Physicist.
The Rock Star is onstage. This is the man who makes instant headlines by announcing he plans to go into space by 2009, whose musings on the fate of humanity for Yahoo Answers generate more than 25,000 responses, and who is surely the only Cambridge University Lucasian professor of Mathematics—a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton—to guest star on both Star Trek and The Simpsons. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has purportedly sold one copy for every 750 people on earth.
Hawking’s Oppenheimer Lecture is a basic primer of cosmology, an ongoing process by which human beings learn to let go of what we want the universe—and our place in it—to be and instead accept what the data imply. For centuries, Hawking points out, the Western world believed in Aristotle’s vision of a universe that had existed forever. “Something eternal,” observes Hawking’s computerized voice, seemingly with the faintest trace of irony, “is more perfect than something created.”
In 1929, Hawking tells us, Edwin Hubble’s discovery that space was in fact expanding “transformed the debate about whether the universe had a beginning.” The logic was clear: “If galaxies are moving apart now, they must have been closer together in the past. If their speed had been constant, they would all have been on top of one another about 15 billion years ago.” Evidence for that hypothesis came in 1965, when a faint background radiation of microwaves was discovered throughout space. “These microwaves are the same as those in your microwave oven, but very much less powerful,” explains Hawking. Then he can’t resist: “They would heat your pizza only to –271.3º centigrade, not much good for defrosting the pizza, let alone cooking it.”
Variations in these microwave readings indicated this radiation was left over from “a very hot and dense state”—the Big Bang. The readings also suggest that the early universe was irregular in density. And this, emphasizes Hawking, is key: “Some regions will have slightly higher density than others. The gravitational attraction of the extra density will slow the expansion of the region and can eventually cause the region to collapse to form galaxies and stars.”
Beep, pause. “So look well at the map of the microwave sky. It is a blueprint for all the structure in the universe. We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.” Another pause. (Hawking’s synthesized timing is spot on.) “God,” he says, completing his thought by contradicting Einstein, “really does play dice.”
There is something deeply theatrical about this moment. The world-famous wheelchaired physicist telling us—by flipping Einstein’s oftquoted dictum—just how random our existence really is. And we have to believe him. After all, doesn’t the genius diagnosed with a fatal condition at the start of his brilliant Oxbridge career have an inarguably visceral knowledge of chance? Who knows more about the effects of gravity than a physicist who can’t move?
Whatever anyone says—even the man himself—it is almost impossible to separate the content of Rock Star Hawking’s discourse from the conditions of his existence. Errol Morris, who directed the evocative 1991 documentary based on Brief History, calls Hawking “the first non-talking talking head.” For philosopher Hélène Mialet, Hawking embodies “the mythical figure of genius capable of grasping the ultimate laws of the universe with nothing but the strength of his reasoning.” The tension between Hawking’s inability to control his body and his seemingly superhuman mind appears to be a Cartesian triumph: I think, therefore I am—despite my crippling disease. He is the ultimate poster boy for our faith in the supremacy of Occidental rationalism.
Other physicists, among the least easily impressed people on the planet, marvel at Hawking’s ability to do calculations in his head. “He must have an enormous power to process problems without ever doing any writing,” says friend and fellow physicist Stanley Deser. “Even Einstein used to sweat with a pencil and paper.”
Backward in time: Tuesday afternoon, the day before Hawking’s Oppenheimer Lecture. Now Hawking the Innovator sits at the front of LeConte 1, a steeply raked lecture hall that feels like a time capsule from the early 1960s. Packed with physics students, the room is stifling. Students in wheelchairs arrive and sit in the front. George Smoot, buoyant and smiling, steps forward to introduce Hawking. “Recently I have found myself reviewing who and what influenced my life and career…. Stephen was one of those for me.” (Hawking, in turn, calls Smoot’s and research partner John Mather’s 1992 observations of the universe in its infant stages “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.”)
It was at Berkeley in the late 1930s, incidentally, that some of the major initial thinking on black holes—which Hawking has done so much to help us understand—was accomplished. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his students calculated the conditions under which a star would collapse. But they did not address what happens inside the star itself. Some 30 years later, this question would drive Hawking’s work on quantum gravity.
In 1942, Oppenheimer convened a conference at Berkeley to consider the design of a fission device. A world away in England, as the skies of London burned with V bombs, Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo. His mother, Isobel, had studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) at Oxford; her husband, Frank, worked as a tropical disease specialist. Early on, it was evident that Stephen was highly gifted; nevertheless, he proved an indifferent student at best—his handwriting was apparently atrocious—but teachers reportedly nicknamed him Einstein.
Up at Oxford, Hawking gained a reputation as the aggressive coxswain of his rowing crew. “He was an extrovert, a fun-loving person,” a former classmate remembers. Hawking spent far more time on the river than in the lab and barely squeaked by his final exams with a first. He was coasting. Until he got sick.
When doctors first diagnosed Hawking with ALS, they gave him two years to live. “[The disease’s] first effect was to depress me,” Hawking has admitted. “There didn’t seem to be any point in doing anything or working on a Ph.D., because I didn’t know [if] I would live long enough to finish it. But then things started to improve…. Before I got motor neurone disease, I was bored with life. But the prospect of an early death made me realize life is really worth living.”
Fortunately, at Oxford he’d had an exceptional physics professor, Bobby Berman, whose specialty was thermodynamics—an area of physics that would prove essential to Hawking’s dazzling early success. Although in 1963, when he arrived at Cambridge to begin graduate work, Hawking tells the students, “Cosmology was hardly recognized as a field.”
But one of Hawking’s doctoral committee members, Roger Penrose, showed that if a star collapses past a certain point, a singularity occurs: a state of infinite density where the laws of space-time (general relativity) no longer apply. Then, in a stunning reversal, Hawking turned Penrose’s breakthrough inside out by running the story of a collapsing star backwards. Basically, he proposed that if a star ends as a singularity, the universe could begin as one. The assertion had a simplicity and elegance that would prove typical of Hawking’s theoretical style.
A dozen years later, Hawking made another revolutionary assertion: that black holes were not really black but rather emitted radiation. “Hawking radiation,” as his theory is known, had major implications for the biggest questions in physics, primarily the seeming incompatibility between quantum mechanics (the theory of very small particles) and general relativity (which deals with large-scale space-time).
When Smoot introduced Hawking at LeConte Hall, he acknowledged that Hawking’s work on black holes and singularity had “a major impact” on his thinking, recalling a seminal moment discussing the new theories over beer and smorsbrot in Manhattan Project team member Niels Bohr’s backyard in Copenhagen. “The Carlsberg brewery has a line that runs directly into Bohr’s kitchen,” he said. The students laughed.
A line of mentorship also runs directly through the brief history of modern cosmology. Physics is a conversation among a very small group of people, which makes it all the more difficult to grasp the incredible speed at which our image of the universe has changed in the last 50 years. Aristotle’s picture of an eternal cosmos held sway from the 2nd century B.C. to the 16th century A.D. Newtonian physics dominated science for four centuries, until Einstein’s theory of relativity. And now even Einstein is being surpassed, says Smoot. In ancient times, the universe was ageless. Now it’s roughly 15 billion years old. Such revolutions begin with a group of men sitting around a lunch table drinking beer.
The same week, in the sunny, stuffy Interaction Room in Old LeConte, about 50 physicists—Berkeley graduate students and professors—sit in attentive silence as Hawking the Working Physicist begins a technical talk. Material, not personality, is king here. No jokes about frozen pizza. The talk is quickly incomprehensible for anyone without an advanced degree in physics, although even a casual observer wouldn’t miss the ripple of reaction when Hawking comments that “string theory is not essential for cosmology.”
Hawking’s recent work involves elaborating on his model of a “no-boundary universe,” one in which space and time form a surface that is finite but without boundaries or edges, similar to the way the Earth is shaped. Just add two more dimensions. “I picture the origin of the universe as like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water,” he has said. “Quantum fluctuations lead to the spontaneous creation of tiny universes, out of nothing. Most of the universes collapse to nothing, but a few that reach a critical size will expand in an inflationary manner and will form galaxies and stars, and maybe beings like us.”
Hawking’s proposal is highly speculative, to say the least. There may be a consensus about the Big Bang, but most of the material constituting the universe—apparently 96 percent of it—and the way that material functions, has generated a growing list of mysteries and speculations: dark matter, dark energy, the accelerated expansion of the universe, quantum gravity. Some scientists argue we’re going through another Copernican revolution.
But behind the elaborate acronyms and the equipment, the all-consuming rigor required to crack being and nothingness on a cosmic level, there is a very human response to playing Master of the Universe. “There was a time when I thought being a scientist was like being a priest,” Smoot says. “You had this truth and beauty you were seeking, like serving God, and you put in long hours of devoted study and work. And then there are times when I think I just have to know. I want to know what makes the universe work.”
After the Oppenheimer Lecture at Zellerbach, the crowd spilled out into the cool night air and hovered, as though they were waiting for something else to happen. It was early—Hawking had been onstage for less than 50 minutes. Spring had arrived that week, and no one wanted to rush home. I thought of the same excitement I’d heard in every single person I’d spoken to at Berkeley that week, from Nobel Prize–winner Smoot to a freshman who’d collected data from a particle accelerator last summer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “When Hawking talks about applying natural selection to multiple universes, it makes me feel kind of lucky to be in this universe,” she had said.
Like a black hole, it is possible to speak about only the effect of Hawking. Of course, like anyone, he has a private life known to a few. He is very much on the earth, friends like Smoot insist, raising his children, struggling with an emotional life—he is recently divorced from his second wife—and looking for purpose. But few people have had a similar ability to open up the possibilities of the universe for so many others.
In Morris’s documentary, Hawking’s sister, Mary, remembers that her brother was always looking for escape routes to and from his family’s rambling mansion. “Stephen used to reckon he knew, I think it was, eleven ways of getting into the house. I could only find ten of them. I still don’t know what the eleventh one was.”
Hawking has accelerated past the temporal conditions of his disease, a sublime escape artist. Paralyzed but unstoppable, the physicist is our lodestar, holding out the possibility that we can grasp the very forces of the universe to which we are so profoundly subject. Or, in pursuit of such mysteries, we’ll discover our value to exist not in what we know, but in the strength of our wonder.