Happy Birthday, Stephen Hawking

By Sean Carroll | January 8, 2012 12:39 pm

Sorry for the light blogging of late. Actual work intervenes, and it might remain that way for a while. But I’ll try to pop in whenever I can.

Stephen Hawking is celebrating his 70th birthday today. That in itself is an amazing fact, just as it was amazing when he celebrated his 40th, and 50th, and 60th birthdays, as well as every other day he’s lived and thrived with a debilitating neuron disease. The extra fact that he continues to make contributions to science pushes beyond amazing to practically unbelievable.

Everyone likes to tell Hawking stories, and this blog is no exception. So here is mine, meagre as it is. I’ve gotten more than enough mileage out of this one in person, I might as well put it on the blog so I won’t be tempted to tell it any more.

At the end of 1992 I was a finishing grad student, applying for postdocs. One of the places I applied was Cambridge, to Hawking’s group at DAMTP. There is a slight potential barrier for American students to travel to the UK for postdocs, so they like to get out ahead of things and offer jobs early. Unfortunately I was out of my office the day Hawking called to offer me a position. Fortunately, my future-Nobel-Laureate officemate was there, and he took the call. He explained that Stephen Hawking had called to offer me a job — I was thrilled about the offer, but understood “Hawking called” as metaphorical. But no, Brian later convinced me that it actually was Hawking on the other end of the line, which he described as a somewhat surreal experience. Of course after the initial introduction the phone gets handed over to someone else, but still.

Cambridge is one of the world’s best places to do theoretical physics, and I was sorely tempted, but I ended up going to MIT instead. Three years later, I went through the process again, as postdocs typically do. And again Cambridge offered me the job — and again, after a very tough decision, I said no, heading of the the ITP in Santa Barbara instead.

Up to this point I had never actually met Hawking in person, although I had been in the audience for one of his lectures. But every year he visits Caltech and Santa Barbara, so I finally got to be with him in the same place. The first time he visited he brought along a young grad student named Raphael Bousso, who has gone on to do quite well for himself in his own right. As a group of us went to lunch, I mentioned to Raphael that I had never said hi to Stephen in person, so I’d appreciate it if he would introduce us. But, I cautioned, I hope he wasn’t upset with me, because he had offered me a postdoc and I turned it down.

Raphael just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, there’s this one guy who he offered a postdoc to twice, and he turned it down both times!” So I had to explain that this guy was actually me. At which point Raphael ran up to Hawking, exclaiming “Stephen! Stephen, this is the guy — the one who turned down DAMTP for postdocs twice in a row!”

That was my personal introduction to Stephen. He just smiled, no big deal — life goes on for him whether or not some callow American student wants to fly across the puddle to work as a postdoc.

Since then I’ve had the privilege of interacting with Hawking more substantively a few times. Once a long conversation just after the discovery of the acceleration of the universe, when he was interested in hearing more about the supernova observations. And once at a whisky tasting organized at an international cosmology conference. Handicaps notwithstanding, Hawking never misses a chance to experience life to its fullest. Another time when I picked up him and his retinue at the airport — which gave me a tiny glimpse of the massive logistical operation it is to move Hawking from place to place. The simplest things that we take for granted are for him an elaborate production.

Happy birthday, Stephen. I know I won’t make the contributions you have to science, but I hope I can live as long, and approach life with your gusto and good humor.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science, Top Posts
  • Peter Beattie

    I saw Hawking give the annual Einstein lecture at Berlin’s Free University some six years ago. What a magical experience! I guess there really is something to the phrase “in the presence of greatness”. And very good to know that I share the appreciation of Gaelic spirits with Stephen Hawking. I shall have a glass in his honour immediately. :)

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R

    Great story, great tribute… and your fame in Cambridge appears well-solidified!

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com cormac

    I wish I was at the conference.
    That said, it is stated in today’s Sunday Times that Hawking is ‘considered the greatest living scientist by his peers’. How does the ST know this? I doubt if the statement is true, despite Hawking’s great achievements, though I don’t know how one could test the hypothesis. I think such icons play a vital role in the romotion of science, but I wonder is there a certain amount of media feeding on itself here, as journalists equate best-known with best…

  • Kevin Barron

    Great story Sean!
    My story revolves around one of the rare public lectures he gave at UCSB. My daughter brought a blind friend from her grade 8 science class, but we did not have a ticket for him and there were no more tickets. When I introduced them to Stephen and explained the situation, he graciously made sure that the boy would be able to attend.
    I’m sure that Stephen has been an inspiration to many, both in terms of science and those facing adversity, but often the small, unnoticed gestures of grace make all the difference in someone’s life.

  • https://bearspace.baylor.edu/VH_Satheeshkumar/www/ V H Satheeshkumar

    Very captivating story indeed. Like most in my age group, I too was mesmerised by cosmology and gravitation through Hawking’s popular books. This later made me study physics and astronomy. There was a phase when I thought that Hawking is overrated. But I realised how wrong I was, when I started studying the nature of singularities and black hole thermodynamics in greater detail. Hawking personifies the cliché “living life to the fullest”. Happy birthday Stephen Hawking :)

  • lg2012

    Happy Birthday Stephen, and have a great 2012.

  • Dan Prall

    And he’s done voices on both The Simpsons and Futurama! Immortality guaranteed. Happy Birthday…

  • James

    My own Hawking story consists solely of almost being run over by him as he flew through the DAMTP in his wheelchair – but by all accounts, that’s an experience common to almost anyone who’s spent enough time in Cambridge. He is apparently not a man to take things slow. I too wish him a happy birthday..

  • James

    For what it’s worth, I think Hawking is overrated – but by the media and general public, not by fellow scientists (eg. Sunday Times apparently believe he is “considered the greatest living scientist by his peers” according to @3 cormac).
    The unfortunate side effect of this is you sometimes meet physicists who can be quite dismissive of him as a kind of adverse reaction to the fulsome praise he gets. This is unfair – he may not be the next Einstein (as a lot of people seem to believe) and there may be many other physicists as deserving of praise, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been hugely important and influential in his own right.

  • Linda Jean

    Not being facetious, but this kind of self-indulgent story can be turned around by the Dark forces: your Nobel prize office mate answered a phone call by Hawking?

  • J Shobe

    Sean, I loved the story. No self-indulgence noticed here. I bought my mother one of Stephen’s books on CD simply because I felt he could reach and intrigue her with his often repeated/copied walks through the history of physics at the start of his books. His genuine excitement and playfulness with his topics is contageous, and I just love that he can get this across despite his handicaps. If I had a Hawking encounter I would surely tell it here, and thank you for telling yours – I don’t, with the exception that I wrote him to take care and be careful if he truly plans to take a near zero-gravity flight. His assistant wrote back thanking me for my concern, but that he would be well taken care of. Happy 70th Birthday Mr. Hawking.

  • Linda Jean

    precisley Mr Shobe: negate Seans’ self-indulgence (nothing wrong with it!!) to engage in your own Hawking indulgence…tsk.tsk..but really really funny thank you!

  • Lonely Flower

    My story with him ; he was once one of my facebook friends:)

  • https://jesusfreak7.wordpress.com/ lawrence mwangi

    Happy Birthday Stephen Hawking!! We love you not because of your academic achievements though your a freaking genious but COURAGE without being able to walk write and talk without help of machine, finding opposition in your work especially from people who don’t have Science or how it really works

    Thanks Sean for the post

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  • Raphael Boozer

    Sean, if you had accepted either of those postdocs you would be a full prof at Berkeley now. True, you would have had to work on laughable borderline crackpottery, but there ain’t no free lunch after all…..

  • Cosmonut

    Hawking IS very overrated by the media – I don’t think any physicist considers his contribution to be comparable to Newton or Einstein to whom he is routinely compared – or even Feynman.

    What reduces my respect for the man is that a lot of the media hype is due to his own self promotion with grandiose statements like “My goal is complete understanding of the universe, why it is the way it is, and why it exists at all”, starry-eyed claims about how we are about the understand the “mind of God” and so on.

    Anyway, given Hawking’s predilection for bets – my own bet is that he won’t discover the unified theory and all his quantum cosmology hocus-pocus will turn out to be completely wrong.
    (I am referring to all the stuff about the no-boundary universe with ‘imaginary time’ being real and the ideas which followed it. The singularity theorems and black-hole radiation work will surely endure)

  • Jimbo

    Hawking’s professional tension w/Peter Higgs is well known, but now that 3-sigma evidence is in favor of the Higgs, I think Stephen should show a little humility, admit he was wrong, & not wait on 5-sigma vindication, inevitably forthcoming.
    Since no bet was made (to my knowledge), he should send Peter a hearty note of congrats.

  • david a

    Happy Birthday Stephen…
    You are most likely my favorite person. The fact that you have kept going all these years with your disease is admirable. I have read everything you have writtenand would love to meet you and get your autograph n one of your books.

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  • Brathmore

    Given the importance of his work, why hasn’t Hawking been awarded a Nobel Prize yet? What could the prize committee be thinking?

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Cosmic Variance

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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] cosmicvariance.com .


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