A motorized wheelchair with a single headlight and two red taillights methodically swerved through the sidewalk traffic on Pasadena’s nouveau-trendy Colorado Boulevard.
Apparently reluctant to stare at a severely disabled person, pedestrians discreetly looked away. If they had looked closer, they would have seen that the person in the chair was the most celebrated scientist of his generation, the true “master of the universe.”
It was Stephen Hawking. And he was late for the movies. Walking rapidly to keep up with him Tuesday night were his assistant, his nurse and a couple of students from Caltech, where Hawking had spent the last month and a half in quiet residency. The Cambridge University professor, who devised key theories about black holes and wrote the bestseller “A Brief History of Time,” has lost almost all muscular control to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Hawking and retinue were heading for “Star Wars,” certainly an appropriate choice for a man who explores the cosmos in his head.
Hawking . . . “Star Wars” . . . dinner conversation afterward--the possibilities seemed endless. Would he expound on the secrets of creation, or even hint at the meaning of life?
Hawking, whose wheelchair has an on-board computer and voice synthesizer that allows him to communicate, sat through the movie and then quickly set off for dinner in a van. The physicist’s assistant, Tom Kendall, found a parking spot about a block from an Indian restaurant I had suggested.
“Stephen likes food so hot it burns the back of your throat off,” said Kendall, and I knew just the place for it.
Hawking made his way toward the restaurant, undaunted by potholes and a steep incline. It was clear that Kendall and the nurse were there to assist but not run his life. Kendall grabbed the handles of the wheelchair only when it was clear that the vehicle’s two batteries (named Bach and Verdi) were straining to get up a hill. In the restaurant, his nurse held up the menu so that Hawking could see it, but he had no intention of taking a passive role at the table.
“Should we each order a dish and share?” Hawking suggested through his synthesizer, and when the waiter came he ordered for himself: “Chicken Bhuna. Spicy.”
Dinner conversation began with small talk about the day. Hawking didn’t say much, perhaps because it takes him a while to formulate anything more than a short comment. Using a hand-held, pressure-sensitive pad hooked to his computer, he scrolls through pages of on-screen words and letters, choosing them one by one to make sentences. When done, he activates the voice synthesizer.
This made for lag time--when he did say something, it was about two minutes behind the conversation.
It was also often wickedly funny. I had mentioned that I had just covered a memorial service at which fans of Liberace gathered to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the entertainer’s death.
The conversation had moved on to other topics when suddenly, from Hawking’s synthesizer, came the question, “Were they there to mourn or celebrate?”
I looked over and saw the famous Hawking smile was radiant. And although his head was turned the other way (he can’t turn it without assistance), he was looking at me out of the corner of one eye, and it had a definite glint.
“Dr. Hawking!” I said in mock shock, and the smile continued nonstop.
At one point he gave the incredibly complex “string theory"--which describes the fundamental building blocks of the universe as not merely particles or forces but tiny loops that vibrate in 10 dimensions--a human spin: “It all fits together, so it has to be right.”
He was extremely curious about the CD-ROM game “Myst” and wrote a note on his computer screen that he should get a get a copy of it before returning to England.
“Great,” said Kendall. “Now you’re going to be up all hours of the night playing computer games.”
The only number mentioned by the great theorist the whole evening was “234.” The age of the universe in billions of dog years? The area code for Jupiter? No, that’s the number of weeks “Brief History of Time” was on the Times of London bestseller list. “Broke the record,” Hawking said.
And he was not above setting someone up with a zinger. At one point, he suddenly asked no one in particular, “Are you anti-Nestle?” The conversation turned to a boycott--most widespread in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but still continued by some activists--against the Swiss food company over its promotion of baby formula in Third World countries.
Hawking let the conversation continue for a bit before remarking, “Nestle owns Perrier.” The person at the table who had ordered the carbonated water glanced at his green bottle and grinned, sheepishly.
It wasn’t the cosmos, but what did come through strongly was Hawking’s humor, infectious curiosity, passion and ability to encompass huge concepts in a single line--the very qualities that have allowed those of us who do not think on such a high plane to feel a connection with the man.
I was a tad disappointed he didn’t talk about “Star Wars,” but watching him head into the parking lot I was struck by the notion that if there is one character in the movie who most closely resembles Hawking, it would be R2D2.
The little droid travels on a set of wheels, communicates in an electronic voice, is unstoppable and the smartest one in any room.
Out by the van, I said goodbye, and then everyone paused a couple of minutes while Hawking composed a reply. I thought: This is it! Stephen Hawking is going to say something directly to me, something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life and quote at dinner parties in the 21st century.
This is what he said:
“Thank you for choosing the restaurant. That was the first good Indian meal I’ve had since I came to California.”
I consider it my contribution to science.