Jordan Hassay worked overtime Monday so he could leave his office early on Tuesday to watch Stephen Hawking speak at Caltech.
By the time Hassay, 26, drove from Hollywood to the Pasadena campus, the line outside Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, which started forming at 8 a.m., was hundreds deep. The famed theoretical physicist wasn’t scheduled to go on until 8 p.m.
He eventually found himself outside the 1,100-person capacity auditorium in an overflow space to watch Hawking give a lecture on the origins of the universe and answer questions from Caltech students.
Like many others who attended the free event, he was happy just to have a seat.
“It was really fascinating,” he said. “I’d read his works, but it was a very special experience to hear him speak.”
Other attendees avoided the line completely and picnicked on the lawn outside Beckman, where the event was displayed on a giant screen. A food stand on the lawn sold coffee and dessert.
Among those on the lawn was Chris Karp, a research engineer at Caltech who brought his 8-year-old son, Sam, to the lecture.
“It’s good to expose the kids to science whenever you can,” Karp said.
Hawking -- who stayed at the university for a year in the 1970s -- is a regular visitor to Caltech, where previous lectures have attracted similar crowds.
On Tuesday, he explored the origin of the universe and encouraged people to “be curious,” stressing the importance of space exploration as a way to sustain humanity.
“It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics,” Hawking said. “Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years and I’m happy if I have made a small contribution. The fact that we human beings, who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.”
A few Caltech students had the chance to pick Hawking’s brain on black holes and other topics after Tuesday’s lecture.
The questions were submitted in advance; Hawking answered through a speech-generating device. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1963 and has spent much of his life in a wheelchair.
One Caltech student asked Hawking after the lecture if he believed in a theory that our universe was caused by a black hole in another universe.
Physicists widely “believe that it’s impossible for matter falling into a black hole to end up in another universe,” he replied.
Another student asked a question that appealed to the way Hawking communicates: “We are starting to be able to control machines with our thoughts. Besides your wheelchair, what’s one thing you’d like to use that for?”
“What I would really like to control is not machines, but people,” he replied, to laughter and applause.
People leaving the auditorium after the event said they were inspired.
Hawking’s geek celebrity status followed him outside, where caretakers helped him into a car. Dozens of attendees rushed to snap photos with cellphone cameras.
When the car began to drive away, they applauded.