No Stupid Questions: an interview with Stephen Hawking
They say there are no stupid questions, but if you ask 1000 people what’s the one question they might pose to the world’s most lauded physicist, I doubt many would have chosen to ask the brilliant mind of Dr. Stephen Hawking about Twitter, of all things. Stupid? Maybe. But I did. Here’s what happened.
The Who’s Who of physics, dressed in black tie attire, gathered in Geneva, Switzerland for the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony. Hosted by US actor Morgan Freeman (who humorously pointed out he had twice played god on screen), with concert pianist Denis Matsuev and singer Sarah Brightman both giving electric performances, the event had glamorous, formal elements of the Oscars, the Olympics and a Nobel Prize ceremony. Scientists were recognized for their work in string theory and pushing the boundaries of physics. The leaders of the LHC project, CMS and ATLAS experiments at CERN, based here in Switzerland, were recognized for their amazing discovery of the Higgs boson particle.
It was an exciting evening, but the biggest wow for many came when billionaire Yuri Milner presented the Special Fundamental Physics Prize (and a US $3 million cash award) to Stephen Hawking for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe.
Dr. Hawking’s theories have been called audacious and, even confined to a wheelchair, he’s got some serious swagger. He wore a jaunty black and white dotted ascot and reveled in his peer’s raucous applause. He spoke, with his strangely lyrical computer synthesized voice, about his ongoing research and anticipation of future discoveries- this from a 70 year-old man suffering from a crippling, fatal-to-most disease; a neuro-muscular dystrophy known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that he’s battled since his early twenties. It was the metaphorical equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage at the end of a hot set.
Most scientists never feel the limelight, but Stephen Hawking is a genuine pop culture icon. He has fans, much like Albert Einstein did in his day. No doubt that if Einstein were alive today, he would have given his ok to have his character drawn up and spoofed on an episode of “The Simpsons” as Dr. Hawking has. Why? Because a large part of what has driven them both is to communicate and inspire the common person to become curious about the wonders of our universe.
“It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. Its a crazy world out there. Be curious.” – Stephen Hawking
Knowing he’d already been interviewed countless times about and god, aliens and the after-life, and also understanding that it would not be possible to ask questions that required more than a yes/no answer, when given opportunity to interview the preeminent scientific mind of our generation, I decided to go a bit gonzo. We were introduced, and he looked directly at me with his clear blue eyes.
Q: Professor Hawking, you’ve put a lot of effort into breaking complex ideas down into concepts the general public can understand, yet I noticed you aren’t really active on social media. Do you use social media at all?
At this point, one of his assistants politely interrupted, stating they had considered a Facebook page, but he was far busy for this kind of thing.
Q: You know that roughly 52% of the world’s population is under 30 years old and that about 75% of the world has a mobile phone, including those in developing nations. These young people might never have the opportunity to read your books, but they could learn from and be inspired by you- if you reach them though social media. (I pause, to take a nervous breath) So, I guess my question is: will you reconsider using social media?
Stephen Hawking looked me straight in the eye and held my gaze. Many long seconds ticked by and then,
Author’s note: Currently, there are numerous faux Stephen Hawking accounts on Twitter and Facebook, many linking to his official website to make it seem legit, but don’t be fooled these social media black holes…for now, it’s only Rock ‘n Roll…