Gravity matters

John Barrett's research website

Stephen Hawking

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hawking7182596    I’d like to add some personal notes of my memories of Stephen. There is already an appraisal of his scientific life by Roger Penrose, which would be hard to better. I can add a few anecdotes about what it was like to talk to him.

I didn’t know him very well, but as a member of his research group for three years around 1990 would see him regularly and chat in the tea-room, mostly about scientific matters. It was actually easier to see him than you might imagine, since many people found communication difficult and shied away from him, an experience I’m sure many disabled people are used to. The trick was to stand at the side, watch the screen as he typed, and try to guess the complete sentence. If you got it wrong he would grimly continue (and you had to wait a full minute for a whole sentence) but if you guessed right his eyes would flick up to yours and the corner of his mouth would grin. He would be straight on to the next sentence. It was dicey of course, too many wrong guesses and the conversation would terminate, as many hapless visitors who were not on the same wavelength would find. He was patient but not infinitely so.

People were in awe of him. I remember a visitor giving a seminar in DAMTP to which Stephen (perhaps unexpectedly) came. Halfway through, the speaker put up a new slide and Stephen started to say something. During the long wait for a sentence to appear the speaker got flustered, started to criticise his own slide and then completely withdrew it, pronouncing it mistaken. Stephen’s sentence finally appeared: “Could someone open a window?” Much laughter.

There was a one-day conference in Cambridge, probably in the 90s, and Roger Penrose came to speak. Roger started by apologising, saying that he had meant to prepare his talk on the bus between Oxford and Cambridge but had fallen asleep instead. So he summarised some recent work that Stephen had done, saying it must be right because Stephen had maintained the exact opposite view for several years previously. Stephen’s computer clicked into life, and eventually we had the response: “The reason that Roger fell asleep on the bus thinking about his talk is because he had nothing to say.” It was all good-natured, everyone laughed and Stephen was grinning from ear to ear.

The last time I went to the same conference as him was in 2005. I was chuffed that he insisted I chair his talk on his paper Information Loss in Black Holes and moderate the questions. I suppose that time I had spent chatting had finally came to some use. He was obviously struggling at the time with illness but absolutely determined to carry on. Although much is written about his genius (and rightly so) I think it’s the determination that impressed me the most.



Written by johnwbarrett

14 March 2018 at 11:24

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. […] Roger Penrose writes an obituary here, John Preskill dedicated a poem and John Barrett writes a short memory. […]

  2. Here is the text of Stephen’s last interview, on what the gravity wave observations mean for our understanding of physics.


    27 March 2018 at 08:28

  3. […] Roger Penrose writes an obituary here, John Preskill dedicated a poem and John Barrett writes a short memory. […]

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