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.