Guest Post — Kip Thorne on Stephen Hawking

By Sean Carroll | February 11, 2009 10:34 am

Most physics fans out there have probably heard of Kip Thorne, author of Black Holes and Time Warps and some other books. If you polled physicists to find out who they thought had been the most influential American scientist doing research in general relativity over the past several decades, Thorne would win hands-down. (Here’s a recent interview in Discover.)

And if you dropped the delimiter “American” from the question above, the winner would undoubtedly be Stephen Hawking. So we’re very happy to have a guest post from Kip, announcing an upcoming talk by Hawking.

Left to right: John Preskill, Kip Thorne, and Stephen Hawking.


Stephen Hawking is coming to town – to Pasadena, that is.

Caltech, in Pasadena, California, is Hawking’s home away from home. Since 1991 he has spent roughly a month a year here as our Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar. This year he flies in from his English home at the end of February, then heads off to Texas in early April.

He arrives with an entourage of five care givers to tend to his physical needs, one or two family members, several graduate students, and a “graduate assistant” who handles logistics and serves as general fixit-person for his computer system and mechanized wheel chair. His current chair is new and sophisticated. At the flick of a switch, its hydraulics can lift him up to a standing person’s eye level or slide him down near ground level for high-speed chases — he has been known to take pleasure from running over the toes of university presidents.

Hawking’s Pasadena sojourns are rather like Einstein’s in the 1930s. Caltech is an intellectual magnet – a crossroad for ideas about the cosmos and the fundamental laws of nature, which are Hawking’s passion. He contributes mightily to the ferment, and partakes. Our California night life (LA, not Caltech!) is also pretty good; and Hawking, like Einstein, is a party animal, only more so. During his annual month here, my own social life intensifies five-fold just from being his closest California friend. He loves opera, theater, jazz clubs, barbecues that he hosts in the patio of his Pasadena home, and dinners with fine wine – especially an Indian Feast prepared for him by Caltech undergraduates. Yes, we geeks can cook up a storm – well, not me, but the younger generation.

Conversation with Stephen is slow, about 3 words a minute, produced by Stephen moving a muscle in his face (imaged by a lens and photodetector) to control a cursor on his computer screen. It’s slow, but rewarding. You never know, until his sentence is complete, whether it will be a pearl of wisdom or an off-the-wall joke. Faster speeds are on the horizon: computer control via brane waves, without drilling a hole in his head (he’s opposed to that). But he resists changing technology, even without drilling, until forced to. “I can’t believe it’s as good as what I have.” (It actually is; my wife has a friend with ALS who proves it so.)

Most of Hawking’s Pasadena time is spent thinking, conversing, and working on projects. Jim Hartle drives down from Santa Barbara to continue their decades-long research collaboration on the birth of the Universe. Leonard Mlodinow, a Pasadena-based free-lance writer, toils with him on a book: in the past, A Briefer History of Time; now, their forthcoming The Grand Design. And there are drives to Hollywood to film for Star Trek or the Simpsons or the forthcoming Stephen Hawking’s Beyond the Horizon.

On each Pasadena visit, Hawking gives a lecture for the general public – always before in Caltech’s limited-seating Beckman Auditorium, but this year in the newly renovated Pasadena Convention Center, at 8PM, Monday March 9. “Why We [the human race] Should Go into Space” is his title. It’s an opportunity to see him in action, be immersed in his mind’s world, and – if last year’s lecture is any indication – participate in a happening. Tickets are available from the Caltech ticket office, (626) 395-4652, at $10 each.

The last time I saw Hawking speak to such a large audience, thousands, was in a converted railway station in Santiago Chile, soon after General Pinochet’s regime gave way to civilian rule. It was quite a show. Hawking made a grand entrance to rock music and charmed the crowd. The President of Chile and other civilian officials sat on one side of the giant stage, the military brass on the other, with enormous tension between them; they were hardly speaking to each other in those days. Only Hawking could bring them into the same room. His aura works magic. The next day the military flew us to Antarctica: a C130 cargo plane filled with TV cameras, journalists and physicists. It was August, the Antarctic winter, the first flight to Antarctica in more than a month due to winter storms. It was a Hawking Adventure, one among many. He lives life to the fullest. He will fly on a rocket into space soon.

  • Elliot Tarabour

    His public lectures do have a rock star feel to them. I saw him in Chicago at McCormick place around 1999 and the room was packed and energy was very high. However scientists may feel about his work, he represents a tremendous human story about overcoming adversity. To me the most striking thing he said at that lecture was that getting ALS was the BEST thing that happened to him because it allowed him to become singularly focused and had it not happened he is not sure he would have amounted to much. I was blown away.


  • Eugene

    I like the slip(?) of the keyboard of “brane”-waves.

  • Jolly Bloger

    Hawking was the first big inspiration I had with regards to science. He’s something of a personal hero. I may have to get down to Caltech to see him.

  • Sean

    Good catch, Eugene! I think I will leave that in for posterity.

  • ben martin

    “If you polled physicists to find out who they thought had been the most influential American scientist doing research in general relativity over the past several decades, Thorne would win hands-down. “

    Except he wouldn’t; I’d imagine that the likes of Stanley Deser, Charlie Misner, John Wheeler, Jimmy York, Bob Wald, Bryce DeWitt, and so on (i) have all produced more notable, important, and influential work in classical relativity than Kip Thorne, and (ii) would be acknowledged as having made more important contributions by those actually working in the classical GR community.

    If you consider “influential” to mean “influential to non-scientists who read popularizations of science,” then yes, Thorne is probably the most influential. But influential in the sense that he’s produced the most important work? Not even close. He’s not even the most influential relativist in Los Angeles County!

  • Adam Solomon

    Wait, brane waves wasn’t an intentional pun? Awww…. :)

    (PS Thanks to Prof. Thorne for reminding me why, every now and then, I really wish I’d chosen to do my undergrad at Caltech! (Even if it’s not a decision I regret (more parentheses).))

  • Adam Solomon

    Speaking of unintentional puns in this thread:

    Ben, I’ll admit it’s pretty common these days, but still we don’t know anything of Kip Thorne’s ethics so let’s not impugn him by calling him a relativist!

  • Bill K

    Hawking may spend a month in balmy Pasadena as visitor but he will spend a full few months at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada this year. Probably after the Pasadena visit. Hawking holds the position of Distinguished Research Chair at PI, which basically mean he has his own show to run. There is an anticipation that he will relocate to Waterloo from UK. Which could mean he might visit Pasadena more frequently.

  • Blake Stacey

    I imagine communicating via brane waves would lend itself well to discussions of great solemnity and gravity.

  • Michael Bacon

    I think Bryce DeWitt is the most influential relativity theorist in recent times. Kip is interesting no doubt.

  • rob

    This certainly isn’t a competition, but if you’re not putting Kip Thorne in the top tier of relativity theorists, then you’re probably not very familiar with relativistic astrophysics. His name isn’t attached to all that many things, but that’s mostly because he’s done so much work through so many generations of students. At any rate, his association with LIGO alone buys him membership in the pantheon.

  • ben martin

    “This certainly isn’t a competition, but if you’re not putting Kip Thorne in the top tier of relativity theorists…”

    I’m not saying anything of the sort. If you’ll read what I said more again it should become obvious that I’m simply arguing against Sean’s rather curious statement that Thorne should be regarded as the most influential American relativist of the past several decades.

  • somebody

    Ben Martin, please shut up!

  • Jan in CT


    Any chance of hooking something up, after the fact, in Second Life? It would give those of us who don’t live within a thousand miles of any of his venues a chance to hear the man speak!

  • Char Lucey

    Will Steven Hawking be speaking at any other locations on his 2009 visit?

    I would like to see one of his lectures in person. Would appreciate your reply.

    Thank you.

    Char Lucey


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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