Universe: Stephen Hawking in Muizenberg

Tonight, I saw Stephen Hawking live. What an awesome experience.

The African Institute of Mathematics (AIMS), a fairly recently established centre for postgraduate study, had somehow managed to get an impressive group of highly respected Nobel laureate scientists to visit South Africa.

We were lucky to get tickets for the event, which was hosted by AIMS at the Muizenberg Pavilion tonight from 18h00 until about 20h00. I had read in the media and heard on the radio that the tickets for this event had sold out a few days after bookings opened. As a result, the place was packed, and all the roads and parking lots were congested.

I hadn’t been in the Pavilion since childhood, and actually had no idea that there was seating available, let alone a stage and good lighting. But they had done a good job with the layout of the various seating blocks, and the stage was flanked on either side by two big screens, so that the people sitting towards the back along the sides could watch the speakers projected onto the screens. There was considerable security at the main entrance and lots of ushers who made sure that you did not sit down somewhere you weren’t supposed to. We ended up in the H-block, which was (kind of) one level up, and looked straight ahead at the stage, so we had an absolutely perfect line-of-sight.

Neil Turok of AIMS was the Master of Ceremonies of this event, whose over-arching title was – appropriately – “Universe”. After he had welcomed the speakers, and all the dignitaries and politicians, the Minister of Education, Mrs Naledi Pandor, was supposed to give a speech, but apparently she had a more important engagement and had thus sent her deputy.

The first speaker was Michael Griffin, an American physicist and aerospace engineer (i.e. a scientist AND an engineer combined) and the current Administrator of NASA since 2005. He oversees the future of human spaceflight, the Hubble telescope and NASA’s role in understanding climate change. I had heard him speak at UCT last year, and had been very impressed by his passion and his easygoing accessibility. He was an inspirational speaker. He made me feel energised. If I had had a teacher like him around at school or at university, I would have wanted to learn all about space and flying to the moon and to the planets far beyond. But it’s a little late to start my life over again.

When he stepped off the stage, he tripped on the last steps, which must have been misaligned a bit. Mr Turok quickly made a light-hearted comment,

“And there we almost lost the head of NASA, because our engineering was not up to scratch.”

Everyone laughed.

The second speaker was the eagerly anticipated Stephen Hawking. The hall went quiet, and everyone watched, mesmerised, as his motorised wheelchair was navigated down the ramp along the side, and onto the stage. He sat a bit awkwardly in the wheelchair, exactly like in the photos of him, with his head supported on the side. After his assistants had moved him into the right position on the stage, everyone left the stage. There was a long silence. We didn’t know what was happening. After a minute or so, I started to panic a little. Mr Turok had just said in his introduction of Hawking that he had known him for many years, and that he had been very, very sick many times, but that he had always bounced back defiantly. As he put it:

“I’ve given up wondering about his health, because he somehow manages to pull through no matter what happens to him… he is a miracle of nature.”

He had also pointed out that it was very, very hard for Hawking to travel, and that we were really fortunate that he had actually agreed to come to South Africa.

Suddenly, Hawking started speaking, although his mouth wasn’t moving. I remembered reading that he had had a tracheotomy in 1985, which rendered him unable to speak normally. Since then, he has been using an electronic voice synthesiser with an American accent, to communicate. But apparently it is very time consuming to construct words and sentences, so his media speeches are prepared in advance. So I figure that the slides and the accompanying sentences must have all been pre-recorded, and that he was merely activating the next one after a suitable interval. There were frequent long pauses, but it wasn’t a distraction, as it allowed one to think about the ideas he was presenting.

He asked questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where did we come from?” (Interestingly, he didn’t ask “Where are we going?”) I thought it was nice that his talk combined scientific explanations of the cosmos and its intricate workings with a couple of jokes and personal anecdotes. He also said:

“The world of science needs Africa’s brilliant talents, and I look forward to meeting prospective young Einsteins from Africa in the near future.”

The third speaker was David Gross, an American particle physicist and string theorist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of asymptotic freedom. He is clearly a really bright man, but he repeated the catchphrase of his speech “finding the African Einstein” so many times that I was becoming increasingly irritable. I think even the most dim-witted and sleep-deprived of us would have grasped within the first 5 minutes of his 30 minute presentation that the whole point of AIMS and the visits by respected world-renowned scientists was to encourage the growth of mathematical sciences and theoretical physics etc. on the African continent.

The final speaker was George Smoot, an American astrophysicist and cosmologist who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics together with John C Mather for his work on cosmic background radiation using the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite (COBE). I really enjoyed his presentation, although it was too scientific and ‘high-level’ for me to understand that much.

But that really didn’t matter.

Because what all their talks did do is to remind me of the fact that the universe out there is unbelievably huge.

And that all the problems and strife we have on this planet, whether on a personal, social, national or global scale, are really quite small and insignificant when you think of the vast number of planets and stars, galaxies and black holes, beyond our little planet Earth.

And that it’s probably quite a miracle that we exist here at all.

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