Professor Stephen Hawking is as comfortable revolutionising scientific theory as he is sending himself up on The Simpsons. Ahead of a new film tribute, Tom Ellen is granted a rare audience with a living legend
(Images: Rex/Getty/Jason Bye )
Dear Stephen,” reads the handwritten letter on the desk in front of me. “I hope you are well. I was just wondering if you have managed to figure out time travel yet? I would be very interested to see what life is like in the future.”
I am alone in Professor Stephen Hawking’s office. Next door, I can hear the rhythmic beeps and bursts of computer speech that indicate the great man is close at hand. I’m waiting among the sprawling, overgrown jungle of his fan mail. The letters sprout wildly from every surface in the room. They lie heaped in 10in-high piles on desks. They peek out from between books and VHS cassettes on the shelves. They creep up the sides of the computer like giant white ivy.
I pick up another at random. This one is a 14-side novella, every inch of it covered with microscopic Chinese script, broken up only by the odd equation or detailed diagram of the solar system. It’s the sort of thing that looks like it might contain all the hidden secrets of the universe within it. Although it could just as easily be a prop from an Indiana Jones film. Hawking’s PA, Judith, walks in and sees me staring blankly at it. “What does this letter say?” I ask. “I’ve no idea,” she shrugs. “No one here reads Chinese.”
From this, we can draw the following conclusion: in countries as far-flung as China and India (our would-be Marty McFly, above, was writing from Delhi), there are people so confident of Hawking’s genius that they believe him perfectly capable of deciphering reams of hyper-intellectual Mandarin or “figuring out” time travel. This may seem slightly naive, but really, who can blame them? Why shouldn’t they expect the impossible from Hawking when he’s already achieved it?
Having been diagnosed with motor-neurone disease aged 21, and deciding, as he puts it in his new memoir, My Brief History, “that my life was over and I would never realise the potential I felt I had”, the 71-year-old has gone on to defy every odd by becoming not only a world-renowned scientist and internationally best-selling author, but also one of history’s most unlikely pop culture icons.
He’s appeared in The Simpsons, and Star Trek. He’s met Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II. He’s performed comedy sketches with Jim Carrey, and even opened the 2012 London Paralympic Games. He has one of the most instantly recognisable voices on the planet, and it’s not even his.
I put the letter back on the pile. “He’s ready for you now,” says Judith.
I am here to “interview” Professor Hawking. Well, this isn’t strictly true. I am here to meet him, and he will be answering my questions, but this is not an interview in the traditional sense. Due to his condition he can only communicate by twitching his cheek to compose sentences on a speech generating device. This is a tortuously slow process that nixes any chance of ‘live’ dialogue.
So, two weeks previously, I emailed Judith my questions, Hawking diligently twitch-typed his responses, and now I’m here at his office in the University Of Cambridge’s Centre of Theoretical Cosmology to hear them delivered in person. It’s here that he still mentors PhD students and continues his research into black holes. Judith opens the door and leads me in. Hawking is sat behind a large wooden desk, and offers me what is unmistakably a friendly smile.
I note that his own Simpsons action figure sits proudly on the windowsill, between fellow Springfield residents Rainier Wolfcastle and Herman, the one-armed military antique dealer.
I’m close enough to see the screen that protrudes from the arm of his wheelchair, through which he communicates with the outside world. It’s divided into a short, drop-down menu with easily selectable items such as ‘food and drink’, ‘greetings’ and ‘request’, and a larger Word-style document on which he can construct fuller sentences. Occasionally, the screen fades to black, and winking green symbols rain down it, in a manner reminiscent of The Matrix’s opening titles. I have absolutely no idea what this is in aid of, but it looks cool.
At Judith’s request, I recite my opening question. Hawking is currently promoting a new documentary about him – cannily titled Hawking – which features some brilliant memories of his childhood, most notably in a scene where his sister recalls their father building her a doll’s house, and a teenage Stephen one-upping him by installing plumbing and lighting.
Off the back of this, I ask if he can remember when he first became captivated by science. He twitches his cheek, and that familiar, clipped robotic voice begins seeping from the screen.
“My father was a research scientist working in tropical medicine and I was interested in how things worked, so science was the obvious choice,” he says. “I picked physics because I thought medicine too imprecise. Although I was never high in the class due to my handwriting and French, my classmates called me ‘Einstein’.”
Hawking’s classmates were on to something. He left secondary school for Oxford, then Oxford for Cambridge, and by 1966, he had acquired a first-class degree, a PhD and various fellowships and prizes. Recognition beyond academia, however, came with the publication of his popular-science book A Brief History Of Time in 1988.
ARROW OF TIME
As well as being an international bestseller (currently at 10 million copies and counting), it’s also regularly listed as one of the top 10 books people start but never finish. If you open it at random, as I just have, to be confronted by a sentence such as, “Our subjective sense of the direction of time, the psychological arrow of time, is therefore determined within our brain by the thermodynamic arrow of time”, you begin to see why that is.
I ask Hawking whether he minds that people don’t always reach the end of his magnum opus. “I know it’s a difficult book,” he says, “but wherever I go in the world I meet people who have read it and been inspired to take an interest in science.”
I get an insight into just how difficult writing the book must have been during Hawking’s next answer. Midway through a comment about his numerous TV appearances (“In The Simpsons, I’m described as the ‘world’s most intelligent man’; it makes a difference from scientists being portrayed as crazy-haired cranks or villains”), his speech program stalls.
I sit beside him in silence, watching as he patiently blinks out a message, live, on the screen in front of me. It takes him almost five minutes to type a short sentence requesting technical help.
For a man whose university friends describe him in the documentary as, “brilliant, in that he could make off-the-cuff remarks that were deep”, and claim “spontaneous humour was his forte”, the frustration he must feel in this delay between conjuring thoughts and expressing them is unimaginable.
Not that it seems to bother him. When his care assistant hops up to get a technician, breezily announcing that “It’s always men who are better at technical stuff” as she goes, Hawking rolls his eyes at me, and grins widely.
LOST IN SPACE
Unsurprisingly for someone who’s dedicated his life to furthering our understanding of the universe, Hawking has always made clear his ambition to go into space. He has also previously mentioned the eventual need for mankind to colonise space, a theory I ask him to elaborate on, mainly because it sounds like the pitch for a preposterous Michael Bay film.
“On average,” he explains, “one might expect an asteroid to collide with Earth about every 10 million years. The last collisions, which killed the dinosaurs, were about 70 million years ago. So we have been lucky and that has given human life time to develop. But sooner or later, an asteroid will hit us and there’s nothing we, or Bruce Willis, can do to stop it. A much more immediate danger to the human race is nuclear war or a genetically engineered virus. That is why I want to encourage space flight and why I will go into space on Virgin Galactic.”
At the Bruce Willis line, I can’t help myself; I start laughing. It’s a decent enough gag on its own, but imagine hearing it read out in Hawking’s deadpan computer voice. While you’re sat next to Stephen Hawking.
As I fail to suppress my amusement, I notice that the short, sharp beeps that accompany each twitch of Hawking’s cheek have now blended into one long one. I look across to see a huge smile plastered on his face; apparently, the beeps lengthen when he finds something funny, because his mouth is momentarily fixed in ‘twitch’ mode. It must be nice, I think, for his family and friends to suddenly hear a long, muffled beep from the next room, and know that Hawking is in there, chuckling to himself about something.
And he still has plenty to chuckle about. Impending space jollies aside, both the documentary and the memoir look set to raise his profile even higher. So, with the future still bright as he enters his seventies, I ask my (admittedly slightly gloomy) final question: in 1985, his illness became so bad that doctors offered to switch off his life support. Did he ever consider it?
“I didn’t know about [that suggestion] until my wife told me after I recovered,” he says. “I would never have voluntarily ended my life unless I was in great pain and had a terminal illness. I was told that ALS [Hawking’s motor-neurone disease] was a terminal illness, which would kill me in three years. Fifty years on, I’m still going strong.”
Hawking is at cinemas from 20 September and available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download from 23 September. My Brief History by Stephen Hawking is out now in hardback