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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. It’s 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 doesn’t?

The title of the lecture was “Predicting the Future: From Astrology to Black Holes.” Somehow I knew in advance that he wasn’t going to come out in favor of astrology.

The lecture wasn’t 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 wasn’t obsessively thinking about my ex-girlfriend, an endearing lady that liked to drink wine, watch pro football on TV, and occasionally talk astrology.

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 and cheered.
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 can’t change people, I guess.

Now we heard about such things as event horizons, general relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum states, Planck’s 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 can’t 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, “It’s 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.

It’s 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 don’t really give a damn about it at present. Steven comes out again, and the Gov thanks him and leaves.

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 Steven’s 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t really like pro football. She didn’t really like science. I guess you can’t change people. To her, Steven Hawking, would always be, “that guy in the wheelchair."