APS News

Hawking Draws Packed House to Atlanta Civic Center

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

Over five thousand local and visiting spectators-scientists and the general public alike-crowded into the Atlanta Civic Center Wednesday evening, March 24, to catch a glimpse of best-selling author and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, in town to accept the 1999 APS Lilienfeld Lectureship Prize and give a free public lecture. Those unable to obtain tickets to the lecture watched it televised live on screens in the adjacent SciTrek Science Museum. Even those physicists skeptical of Hawking's highly mathematical, often speculative, and heavily debated theories — and knack for generating publicity — were on hand to witness what was unquestionably an "Event." [Said one, "This is something you see once in a lifetime."]

Hawking, 56, is the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University in England — a chair once held by Isaac Newton — and author of A Brief History of Time, which has been translated into 40 languages since its publication in 1988. Microsoft technical guru Nathan Myhrvold, a former postdoctoral student of Hawking's, has said that the wheelchair-bound theorist has "sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex," and Hawking himself estimates that Brief History "has sold about one copy for every 750 men, women and children in the world." His latest book is Black Holes and Baby Universes, published in 1997.

The Lilienfeld prize check and certificate were presented by APS President Elect James Langer (University of California, Santa Barbara) to thunderous applause from the packed auditorium. Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — an incurable degenerative neuromuscular disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease — then delivered his lecture on the computerized synthetic speech machine he uses to communicate with the outside world. Entitled "The Universe in a Nutshell," the subject matter was nothing new to those who have read his best-selling books — namely, that the universe is a self-contained system without boundaries, and that time has no meaning outside the laws of physics —k, but the addition of illustrative cartoon graphics on three large screens behind him added considerable visual impact to the concepts.

At a press conference the day before, Hawking played recorded answers to questions submitted previously by reporters. Most notably, he endorsed the recent discovery that the universe may be expanding at an ever-increasing rate - listed as the "Breakthrough of the Year" by Science magazine in 1998. Initially skeptical, Hawking told reporters that after examining the data collected from distant supernova blasts, he has "reconsidered" his "theoretical preferences" about the cosmological constant that would cause space to inflate more quickly with time. "I now think it is very reasonable that there should be a cosmological constant," he said. "I have had more time to consider the observations, and they look quite good." Furthermore, he believes there is not enough known matter in the universe to halt its expansion, and thus "the universe may keep flying apart forever."

Hawking also said that he believes there is a 50-50 chance that scientists will achieve a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) within the next 20 years. One of the best candidates, he said, is the so- called "M theory," an extension of string theory that allows multiple universes to arise from an ever-changing quantum foam of space-time. However, he refused to identify any single example as the greatest development in 20th century physics, stating flatly, "It is a ridiculous question. Physics is a unified corpus. You cannot isolate a single aspect." And asked whether time travel will be possible in the next millennium, he replied with a succinct, "No."

At a special, invitation-only reception just after the evening lecture, guests had the opportunity to meet Hawking in person, as well as sample hors d'oeuvres and mingle with many of the featured lecturers and performers associated with the city-wide Physics Festival. Many crowded about Hawking's wheelchair, curious to witness the workings of his computerized speech synthesizer firsthand. [He manipulates a toggle switch with his left forefinger to select words and phrases from the computer screen displayed in front of him, which then converts the text into speech.] Science magician Bob Friedhoffer demonstrated some basic card tricks, causing one card to "visibly" melt through another, and a card packet to vanish, reappearing in his mouth. The performance elicited a smile of delight from one of the world's most famous physicists, along with the comment, "That's why I'm not an experimental physicist. You can never believe the evidence."

On Friday, Hawking and his entourage toured the Centers for Disease Control, a national program based in Atlanta of particular interest to him. Hawking's father was a prominent microbiologist specializing in tropical diseases, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. Asked by Altanta festival coordinator Karla Jennings whether he'd ever considered a career other than physics, he quipped, "I considered becoming Prime Minister of England, but now I'm glad that Tony Blair has the job."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette