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Steven Hawking: “That Guy in the Wheelchair”
by William Earth
Steven Hawking studies
Black Holes. Collapsed stars of such immense gravity that even
light can not escape from them. He studies them with such an
intensity that he almost seems to have been physically sucked
into one, leaving behind just enough of his body in our universe
to tell us what he has seen.
Once a year, the wheelchair-bound cosmologist appears in the
L.A. area and gives a free public lecture. Its not advertised,
except to a select few. As a member of the Planetary Society,
based in Pasadena, I was invited. I knew from previous years
that it would be a first-come, first-served event, at the California
Institute of Technology.
Michael Shermer, an historian of science at Occidental College
in Eagle Rock, calls this annual event a kind of scientific
Woodstock. I guess that makes me a kind of scientific
groupie. Shermer says we get together to celebrate, and
someone always tries to ask Steven if there is a God. Then Shermer
adds, as if Steven Hawking would know.
You mean he doesnt?
The title of the lecture was Predicting the Future: From
Astrology to Black Holes. Somehow I knew in advance that
he wasnt going to come out in favor of astrology.
The lecture wasnt until 8 PM, but my friend Mike (a soft-spoken
technician who works with particle accelerators) and I got there
around five hours early. Already there were fifty or so people
in line ahead of us, on the grass in front of Beckman Auditorium,
at the center of Cal Tech. I spread out my blanket and offered
Mike some bread, chips, and dip. He had just eaten, he said,
so I compulsively gulped all of the food down by myself. (I had
just broken up with my girlfriend a couple of months earlier,
and found I was eating too much lately.)
The five hours until the lecture went by surpassingly fast. Mike
and I talked about a new class of numbers I had discovered, while
people kept arriving in a steady stream, pushing the line back
across the quadrangle and out of sight. It gave one a good feeling
to see all those people behind you.
All along the line people were sitting on their blankets discussing
physics or playing chess or reading or eating. Some young students
were throwing a ball with a twirling sort of hexacomb tail that
made an eerie science fiction sound, eeeeeeeeeeeeee, as it flew
through the air. Ushers now arrived, people were coming in still
steady numbers, and the tension was building.
I noticed for the first time in weeks that I wasnt obsessively
thinking about my ex-girlfriend, an endearing lady that liked
to drink wine, watch pro football on TV, and occasionally talk
I saw John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescope, and founder
of the Sidewalk Astronomers, here from San Francisco. I had seen
him on TV and been to several of his lectures. I shook hands
with him and introduced myself. He was sporting long, gray hair
now, in a pony tail which somehow went well with the lines grooved
into his face.
The Earth had rotated and now a full moon appeared over Baxter
Hall to the east of us. The auditorium in front of us seemed
to look like a large Mothership about to take off. Ushers told
us to move closer and several times. I had to drag the blanket
forward. Suddenly, we were entering.
We moved quickly and managed to find seats in the front row,
but off to the left. The center was roped off for the big shots.
We talked excitedly for a few minutes, and then at 8 the ropes
came down and Mike and I went to the center section to sit. We
were quickly asked to leave by the head usher, and we soon found
out why. All the dignitaries came in, and Governor Wilson and
his wife took the seats Mike and I had been sitting in.
Next, Steven, himself, wheeled down the center aisle, piloting
his own chair with the ease of a riverboat captain. We all stood
His legs were shaking uncontrollably as he sat and started the
tape of his lecture. One could sense the painful shyness that
endears him to us (like Einstein in the past and unlike Carl
Sagan). One of his nurses, fashionably dressed, came up and readjusted
his feet, and the shaking stopped.
Steven put up an astrological prediction that he had downloaded
from the Internet, and pointed out that it was quite general
and vague. For the first time, I noticed that it was general
and vague. I wished my ex-girlfriend were here to see that, but
then you cant change people, I guess.
Now we heard about such things as event horizons, general relativity,
Heisenbergs uncertainty principle, quantum states, Plancks
constant, Hawking radiation, particles and antiparticles, and
the possibilities of time travel. He made the usual joke about
the French not liking the name Black Hole at first because it
had a different meaning in that culture. (I wonder what they
think of the Big Bang?) On the large screen behind him, we saw
some interesting space-time diagrams I had never seen before,
and I wondered how much of all this Governor Wilson and his wife
were taking in.
Steven then discussed whether information gets lost in a Black
Hole, never to be retrieved, and pointed out that this question,
unresolved at present, has important consequences for determinism.
I knew what he was getting at: Is it possible that the future
is set, but all we can remember is the past? I had heard other
physicists talk about this before, and it interested me. Somehow
pre-determinism was comforting to me. No matter how much I worried,
it was all going to happen anyway. But then maybe all my worry
was pre-determined too. I guess you cant win.
After the lecture they passed out 3 by 5 cards so we could ask
questions, but I had none. Two scientists at Cal Tech who work
with Steven came to the podium and picked out some questions.
One described how Steven scrolls down a list of words on the
computer screen in front of him, picking out the ones he needs
to make a sentence, which is then played out in that machine-like
voice with which we all now identify him. Mostly Steven answered
in short replies like, Yes, or, Its controversial.
One of the scientists, Kip Thorne, told about Steven and he going
to Antarctica at the invitation of the Chilean government. In
our minds, we saw Steven wheeling down the ramp of a military
cargo plane into the snow.
Its over, and Steven and the crowd slowly disappear. Mike
and I linger. I thought about going up to Governor Wilson and
thanking him for reducing the class sizes in the schools, but
then I realized that I dont really give a damn about it
at present. Steven comes out again, and the Gov thanks him and
Some guy from the production staff at Star Trek appears
with a knockout brunette, and thanks Steven for appearing on
the show a couple years back. Steven had asked to see the Bridge
of the Starship Enterprise at Paramount, and had been promptly
written into the script. Anyway, I think Stevens eyes brighten
up a bit when he sees the brunette.
Then a lady comes up and presents Steven with a life-like drawing
of him in his wheelchair, with his head listing off to one side
like it always does. He looks a little shocked when he sees himself.
I wonder if he doesnt look in the mirror that often because
of his nurses. The artist now pulls out a pocket camera, and
before Steven can scroll to the word a, this friend
of hers snags a photo of her, him, and the drawing all together.
Steven wheels out of the auditiorium, and Mike and I follow,
maybe hoping for some last bit of enlightenment from the scientific
guru, but none comes.
I drive home, feeling lonely, thinking again about my girlfriend,
wondering if our breakup was for the best. I didnt really
like pro football. She didnt really like science. I guess
you cant change people. To her, Steven Hawking, would always
be, that guy in the wheelchair."