Hawking Inspires Students at UC Lecture

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 16, 2007

Physics was what 17-year-old Katy Forte had always wanted to pursue in college. That was until she started school at UC Berkeley last fall. 

“I had to give up the idea,” she said. “All the smart people on campus intimated me and I was too scared to pursue it.” 

But that was last semester. Things changed when Katy heard renowned physicist Stephen Hawking speak on the “Origin of the Universe” during the Physics Oppenheimer Lecture at the Zellerbach Hall Tuesday. 

“It definitely inspired me to go back and take some general classes in physics and see what’s out there,” she said. “Hawking was awesome. The whole lecture was presented in a way that would make perfect sense to anyone.” 

That in itself, as UC Berkeley theoritical physicist Marvin Cohen told the Planet, was the very purpose of the Oppenheimer Lecture. 

“We want to bring world renowned physicists to Berkeley who would give lectures that the public, especially students, would enjoy,” he said. 

Earlier lecturers have included Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann, Frank Yang and Robert Laughlin. 

The journey to bring Hawking—who is Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, England—to Berkeley, began four years back. Hawkin, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21, has a limited traveling schedule. 

“I had just flown into Heathrow from a conference in Edinburgh and was complaining to my wife about how tired I was,” Cohen said. “Then I saw Stephen Hawking waiting in the Virgin Atlantic lounge en route to China. I thought it was a good time to tell him that if you can go to China you can come to Berkeley.” 

And thus began an exhaustive effort to extract a few days from Hawkin’s schedule that would allow him to come to Berkeley. 

E-mails between Cohen and Hawking went back and forth, and once Marjorie Shapiro, the physics department chair, gave her consent, the date was set. 

“What makes Hawking so popular with all students is his wit,” said Cohen. 

Sure enough, in-between explaining the myth of the creation of the universe from the confines of his chair, Hawking slipped in these lines: 

“What was God doing before He made the world? Was he preparing Hell for people who asked such questions?” 

And later, “At a conference on cosmology in the Vatican, the Pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself, because that was the moment of creation, and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference, suggesting how the universe began. I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the inquisition, like Galileo.” 

For some students outside the ream of physics on Tuesday, Hawking, who was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, has something of a rockstar status. 

“He’s been on the Simpsons, and has appeared on Star Trek. And if that’s not enough, he’s going on a zero-gravity flight on his 65th birthday. It doesn’t get any cooler than that,” said Robert Hui who had come from Stockton to see Hawking. 

Initial excitement for the event made Cohen realize that the lecture was not going to be just another physics seminar. 

“The Oppenheimer usually fills one of the physical sciences hall. But for this we needed a very big hall,” he said.  

“Sometimes there are situations and personalities that have very general interest. In this case, there is a personality involved who has had a very unusual life and overcome obstacles. Hawking can hear you and see you. But if you waited for an answer, it would take a minimum of twelve minutes. I don’t think people were there to interact with him, they just wanted to be in his presence.” 

Students, alumni, faculty and the general public filled 2000-seat Zellerbach Auditorium and the 700-seat Wheeler Auditorium—for the live video simulcast—in a matter of time Tuesday. 

“The students are attracted by the prospect of being in the same room with the Albert Einstein of our generation. They may not have an interest in physics, but they all want to witness this phenomenon,” said Joe Yang, spokesperson for Cal Performances, which co-produced the event. 

Hawking’s research with black holes (first proposed by Robert Oppenheimer, after whom the Oppenheimer Lecture is named) and “space-time singularities” led to ground-breaking work on the theory of the universe. It also led to the publication of Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes in 1988. 

Incoming Cal freshman received its 2005 sequel A Briefer History of Time in their dorms last November as part of the new “On the Same Page” program established last year by the College of Letters & Science. 

“This time the books will go out much earlier. The idea is to get them to read a book that has changed the way we view the world,” said Cohen.  

“We want students to interact with the book’s author as well as faculty. Students need to know that physics is nothing to be afraid of. You don’t need to reach the greatness of Einstein to contribute to physics. You can do it in your own way.”