Stephen Hawking

Hawking Picture
An Interview by a Ward Melville student with Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University

Good Afternoon Dr. Hawking, how do you do?

Hello.  I’m doing very well, and you?

I am great.  Dr. Hawking, you are said by some to be the smartest man alive, by others to be Einstein’s heir in the field of physics.  You, as Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft remarked, have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex.  What do you say to them?

They’re exaggerating.  Whatever discoveries I have made, I have made, as both Einstein and Newton said, standing on the shoulders of giants.  Well, not quite standing…

You are indeed a unique man.  Could you please relate something of your childhood?  What went on in those early years of your life?

Well, to begin in the beginning, I was born into a middle class family in 1942--- strangely enough --- on the day Galileo died.  My father, William, and my mother, Isobel, were both graduates of Oxford.  My father was a doctor, so we were comfortable financially.  He believed that his own poverty growing up and lack of social graces hampered his career so became determined for me to enroll in Westminster (an elite private school).  However, I was ill on the day of the scholarship examinations, and there was no way an education there was possible otherwise, so in the end I went to St. Albans.  There, I received what I believe to be the best education I could have possibly gotten.

How was life at home?

Home was always a warm place.  My three siblings (Mary, Philippa, and Edward) and I were very close.  There was always tea brewing in the kitchen and shelf after shelf of interesting books to read.

Many people describe your family as intellectual and eccentric.  Do you agree?

Intellectual, perhaps, but we never considered ourselves to be eccentric.  We were quite a family of socialites.  However I remember that we always read at the dinner table, whether or not there were any guests present.  Also, our flat was a little untidy.  I guess you might call my family slightly eccentric.

What was school like for you?  I imagine that you would have been far ahead of your class.

On the contrary!  I was very much an average student in my class… it had been quite a very bright class.  I believe a bet was made between two of my closest friends as to whether or not I would amount to anything.  The wager was a bag of candy…  I wonder how it was decided.

I am sure that there must have been a great deal of work from school.

Approaching infinity.

How did you spend your free time? Or is that mathematically impossible?

Well, I was quite the… nerd.  However, I was not alone.  I had a close group of friends throughout my childhood.  I remember listening not to popular music like jazz or classical rock, but to the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, and Mahler.  We invented war games.  My creations were often so cumbersome that Saturday afternoons were spent not playing the game, but trying to sort through the labyrinth of rules and regulations.  When I was alone, I often liked to create odd chemical and electrical contraptions.  I was never very skilled at manipulating objects.

St. Albans apparently provided you with a wonderful environment for intellectual growth.  How was your education continued?

After an eternity of testing on theoretical physics and mathematics upon graduation from St. Albans, I was accepted into Oxford as a Scholar – the highest status.  The first year at Oxford was a horrible experience.  None of my closest friends went up with me.  I do not wish to sound arrogant, but on top of that, the math and physics courses offered were not challenging in the slightest.  It was all very boring.  Perhaps the best word to describe my experience at Oxford is ennui.
On my second year, I found consolation in rowing.  It was a sport for the physically elite, and I… was simply not one of them.  I coxed.  I found directing the rowsmen quite exhilarating.  My teams were never better than average.  But with rowing, I became one of the crowd.
I graduated Oxford after the obligatory three years.  After the Finals, I was placed between receiving a First and a Second degree.  The examiners questioned me afterwards as to decide.  I told them that if they awarded me a First, I would go to Cambridge.  If I received a Second, I would have stayed in Oxford.  They gave me a First.

It was during your first year at Cambridge that you discovered that something was wrong with your motor skills.  What happened?

I had gone home to visit my family in the winter of ’62 and ’63.  My mother persuaded me to go ice-skating.  When I fell and had great difficulty getting up, something was obviously wrong.  They took me to the family doctor, who referred me to a specialist.  After poking me with dozens of needles, taking a muscle sample from my arm, and injecting radio-opaque fluid into my spine, they then turned me in all different directions.  The only thing they told me afterward was that I did not have MS.  When they discovered I had ALS, I was told that I had about two more years to live.  It all came down pretty fast.

Speaking of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or motor neuron disease), Dr. Hawking, how is it that you coped with this debilitating disease?  There have been stories of you locking yourself behind a door, blasting Wagner in a drunken haze.  How accurate is this description?

While I did listen to quite a bit of Wagner, I believe the drunken haze is slightly exaggerated.  Even if it were true, I have complete use of my emotions, if not my body.  Receiving a death sentence has a depressing effect on people.  It was my engagement to Jane Wilde that gave me a reason to go on living.  That and chocolate truffles.

Some say that you are happier with ALS than you ever were before.  Is this true?

Yes, it most certainly is.  Someone who is physically handicapped cannot afford to be mentally or emotionally handicapped as well.

Can it be said, then, that ALS has helped you in life?

Nothing of this sort could ever help a man, no.  But it has hurt me less than it would have hurt others.  This sort of physical handicap does not hinder my mind, so therefore does not interfere with what I love most: theoretical physics.

Sir, you have lived more than 40 years longer than expected, you have fathered three children you were never supposed to have.  You have written numerous books and papers, including A Brief History of Time, which is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s best-selling book minus the Bible and Shakespeare.  What is your greatest accomplishment?  And your greatest disappointment?

My greatest successes are my three lovely children, while my greatest disappointment is my never having been able to play physically with them.


I am immensely proud of my position as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge – a seat previously held by Sir Isaac Newton, three and a quarter centuries ago.  The success of A Brief History is also very heartening.  However, I must say that my greatest contribution to physics is my attempt at combining relativity and quantum theory into a single theory of the universe.  My greatest disappointment is that no such combined theory has yet been developed in full.

It has been said that it is not possible to understand Stephen Hawking, the man, without understanding his science.  Is it possible for you to explain your theory?

Of course.  First we must understand the general theory of relativity and the quantum theory.  Briefly, Einstein’s specific theory of relativity established time as a fourth dimension, not something existing completely separate. Time, he proved, must be relative to the beholder, much like distance.

How does the fourth dimension apply itself to this world?  I thought there were only three dimensions.

With one dimension, there is only a point, without width or depth.  With two dimensions, we have a line.  A true line cannot be seen with the eyes, because there is no depth to reflect light with.  In the same way, humans could not detect a purely three-dimensional object because it would not have existed for any duration of time.

How was the relativity of time proven?

If I held a ball in my hand while sitting in a car that was traveling at 30 kilometers an hour, the ball would seem stationary to me.  However, someone observing from the road would say that the ball at moved 8 1/3 kilometers in the one second where the car passed the viewer.  One observation is as legitimate as the other.  The same is true for measuring the distance traveled by light.
The speed of light is 3.0 times 10^8 meters per second, a property that has been proven to be unchanging, no matter the circumstance.  The speed of an object traveling from point A to point B is essentially the distance between the two points divided by the time it took to get there.  Therefore, if the speed is constant, while distance is relative, time must also be relative.  This created a new way of perceiving the universe: the concept of space-time.
How is this related to cosmology and the general theory of relativity?

In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, he had the brilliant idea that gravity was not a force like other forces, but was merely a distortion in space-time.  Objects, like the Earth, try to travel in a straight path, but appear to be bent because of these distortions.  Space-time is literally wrapped around large quantities of mass or energy.

Diagram 2

And how was this theory proven?

There were many instances.  One is that after the end of World War I, British scientists observed a solar eclipse.  Starlight was bent around the sun exactly as the theory of relativity predicted.

I believe I understand a little of this!  How exciting.  Please continue, Dr. Hawking.

While Einstein developed theories on the very large, other theories were developed on the very small.  In 1926, Heisenberg developed an uncertainty principle that said that the uncertainty of the position of a particle times the uncertainty of its velocity, times its mass, cannot be smaller than a certain number – Planck’s constant.  This switched the area of microphysics from predicting definite futures to defining probable outcomes.  To this, Einstein made the famous quote, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Let me get this straight, we can never know where something is and how fast its moving at the same time?

Not precisely, no.  This is a fundamental concept in quantum theory.

What else?

Also discovered was that when a particle was traveling from point A to point B, it does not go in a straight path, but in every possible path.  However, because particles can also be defined as waves, more circuitous paths often cancel each other out – leaving straight and almost straight paths.  Now keep in mind, this travel that we speak of occurs in four dimensions.  An irregular path indicates that it not only does not travel in the same direction, it does not travel at a constant speed.

Now, for the great synthesis:

When a star such as our sun runs out of fuel, it loses its ability to counteract the gravity pulling it upon itself.  So, it implodes until Pauli exclusion forces between electrons match gravitational pull.

For our readers, what are Pauli exclusion forces?

Do you know how opposite charges attract?  And how the same charge would repulse?  Electrons are all negatively charged, so repel each other.  Only a certain number of electrons may normally be packed in a certain amount of space.

What role do the Pauli exclusion forces have in a star’s collapse?

They put the star into equilibrium, so that it neither expands or contracts.  However, there is a limit, known as the Chandrasehkar limit, where electron repulsion is no longer able to keep the star from imploding further.  Thus, a star of 10 solar masses will become a neutron star.

What is a neutron star?

It is an object whose atoms contain only nuclei, because the electrons have been squeezed away.  Neutron stars were thought to be the densest possible object for some time.

Is that still true?  Is it possible for something to be denser than a neutron star?

All evidence points to yes.  A star of 30 solar masses should continue to implode.  As its volume approaches zero, its density approaches infinity.  Such an occurrence in space-time is known as a singularity.  Its infinite density means that anything under at or under the speed of light cannot escape from it.  The point of no return, beyond which everything is sucked down, is called the event horizon.  This entire contraption has become known as a black hole.

Diagram 3 I have often wondered that if black holes are black, how do scientists know that they exist?

My theory begins here.  The theory of relativity assumes that nothing can travel faster than light.  If this is true, then nothing can escape a black hole.  But, remember that a particle takes every possible path between two points in space-time.  For some distances, it may travel faster than time itself.  To escape a black hole, a particle must travel past the event horizon at that velocity.  With the number of particles that are ingested by black holes, only a few escape.  Those few, however, are strong enough in number to be detected --- to be seen.

It all sounds very impressive.  What sort of contribution in this to the field of physics?

The achievement in this theory is that it combines relativity: the discontinuity of time, and gravity as a dimple in space-time; with quantum mechanics – the travel of a particle by every path possible.

Wow.  With all this about the laws of the universe, it seems that you have left very little room for God.  Do your theories disprove God?

The laws of physics determine the way the universe began and will end.  This means that God did not create the universe in an arbitrary and unintelligible way.  It says nothing about whether or not God exists, just that he is not arbitrary.

Many people find your atheist views offensive.

My rationale will not allow me to hold any other view.

Is this the reason for your separation with Jane?  Many people blame you for your marital problems.  She did, after all, take care of you for 25 years.

Our disagreement on religious issues did contribute to our separation, yes.  However, I might have done the moving-out, but two people, not one, create conflicts.  I might not have a normal person’s body, or a normal person’s intellect, but I have a normal person’s emotions.  And, I thought we agreed not to discuss my personal life?

My apologies.  What do you wish for your future?

I would like to know what happens inside a singularity, and what happens when a black hole evaporates… though I'm not thinking of jumping into a black hole.  Perhaps dinner with a beautiful girl would not be too much to ask to ask of the world?  I would like some crème brulée for dessert tonight.

And for the future of physics?
I believe that a unified theory of the universe is just on the horizon.  The universe is made up of million and millions of galaxies, but it is finite, and so must be its laws.  Perhaps inquiry into this most noble field is coming to an end.

You say that with sadness.

Of course!  Physics was my first love… and I’d be out of a job.

Thank you very much for your time.

You are most welcome.


Works Cited

Fuerguson, Kitty. Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of the Universe. Franklin Watts, New York; 1991

This book is about as simple as a biography on Stephen Hawking can be. Its reading level is fit for high school students. However, I found it to be redundant. On a scale from one to ten, I’d give this one a 6.

Hawking, Stephen. Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays. Bantam Books, New York; 1993

This is an autobiography of sorts. This is a good source for understanding Hawking’s character. While other books can give you the low down on his physics, no one can paint a better picture of the man than Hawking himself. This one is an 9. I enjoyed the interview at the end.

Hawking, Stephen. The Illustrated A Brief History of Time . Bantam Books, New York; 1996

This is the global bestseller itself. Dr. Hawking’s theories are presented in the most intelligible way possible for such subject matter. The pictures help. Of course, the book is slightly difficult to read. However, I believe the knowledge gained not only on Hawking, but the entire history of physics is valuable. How can I give this masterpiece anything less than a 10?

White, Michael, and John Gribbin. Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. Penguin Books, New York; 1992

This book includes both colorful accounts of Hawking’s life, and an understandable description of physical theories. It would be a good book to read through, but I found it hard to navigate for the purposes of this paper. It’s a 7.

I also watched the documentary, A Brief History of Time. The video was much less technical than the book. It was quite interesting. An eight for the film.