Stephen Hawking at the Union

Image credit: Chris Williamson / Getty Images

The seemingly endless line of students and alumni desperate to enter the Cambridge Union on Tuesday evening was a testament to the widespread acclaim of the guest speaker, Stephen Hawking; a figure whose visit to the institution was only announced late last month in an updated term-card. But despite the relatively late notice of his talk, Hawking’s immense renown, both here and abroad, meant the event proved to be even more popular than usual: after a weekend balloting system was set up for 300 tickets, the remaining 100 on the door were rapidly depleted; the queuing time of 3.40pm set by the Union was disregarded by hundreds of eager listeners, meaning tickets were exhausted by 3.20pm.

But Hawking did not disappoint, with a witty, clever and intriguing talk on his experiences inside and outside Cambridge, alongside an informative presentation. His presence at the Union was to present him with the inaugural Hawking fellowship, an annual award preceding a lecture series, which is the first fellowship in the 202 years of the Union. This was an accolade he called an “honour”, claiming “this lifetime fellowship [had put him] in a reflective mood”, prompting a look back over his life and how the understanding of universe has changed over this period.

His initial discussion of his early life, with the revelation that he “was born...exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo”, were brimming with wit: after mentioning he grew up in Highgate, an area where scientific and academic figures lived, he cut short the description of his neighbourhood to mention a childhood friend whose parents weren’t intellectuals, declaring that he “was a revelation to [him]”. He also detailed the progressive feel of his school, stating that he remembered “complaining to [his] parents that they weren’t teaching me anything”, though he later realised he was being educated in a novel manner which promoted a self-development “without realising you were being taught”. Though he then quipped that he felt his sister “was definitely brighter than [him]”, he acknowledged that he used to have discussions with his school friends about religion and the origin of the universe; an anticipation of his deep interest in these fields in later life.

He then detailed his journey to higher education, explaining that his father was keen that he should go to either Cambridge or Oxford; though with a focus on the latter, as he himself had gone to University College, Oxford. Hawking listened to his father’s words and decided to apply to that exact college – though he had to apply to study Sciences as at that time there was no fellow in Mathematics. He explained that the 1960s work ethic at Oxford was one of innate skill, claiming that “you were supposed to be brilliant without effort, or accept your limitations and get a third-class degree”; he calculated that he had done “about an hour’s work a day”, immediately remarking, “I am not proud of this.” He also described difficulties with the marking of his final exam, meaning he had to undergo an oral examination in addition. During this interview, Hawking was asked about his future plans: he explained he wanted to do research, so argued that “if you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford”.

He then paused, and stated: “they gave me a First”.

He went on to detail his desire to acquire a travel grant: he thought that chance of getting one would be greater the further he wanted to go, so he decided to apply to tour Iran. He was successful, and set off with a friend in the period between his undergraduate and graduate studies. He recollected that he was caught in 7.1-magnitude earthquake during the trip, but was unaware of the disaster when it occurred because he was in an extremely rickety bus which was bouncing across the uneven roads of the country. This bus journey in fact gave him a broken rib, which he recovered from in a brief period of convalescence after the ride – though he stated he still didn’t know of the earthquake during this time, as he didn’t speak the language. It was only 10 days later, when he arrived in Istanbul, that he finally heard of the tragedy; realising quickly that his parents were worried sick because they had last heard from him in Tehran, near the epicentre.

Hawking then went on to reminisce about his first experiences of graduate study. He had initially desired to be taught by Fred Hoyle, a renowned astronomer, but Hoyle had too many students, so Hawking was assigned to Dennis William Sciama instead. However, Hawking later explained that he was glad he had not been supervised by Hoyle, or he would have been drawn into theories “harder than Brexit”. Indeed, Sciama was known as one of the fathers of modern cosmology – Hawking declared he had come to Cambridge to study cosmology “and cosmology I was determined to do.” Yet though he first progressed well in these studies, his health suddenly took a turn for the worst, threatening his future.

Hawking admitted that he already knew something was wrong with him as he had struggled to get up even back in Oxford – though it was only after he went home for Christmas and his mother saw these developments that medical assistance was sought.  However, Hawking acknowledged that “the doctor who diagnosed me washed his hands of me...he felt that there was nothing that could be done”; a resignation to fate which Hawking himself adopted in the early period of his illness. He remarked that “at first [he] became depressed [as he] seemed to be getting worse really rapidly.” He argued that “there didn’t seem any point working on [his] PhD because [he] didn’t know if [he] would live long enough to finish it” – but then the illness moved slower, and things began to look up. He claimed that suddenly “every new day became a bonus”, remarking that “whilst there is life, there is hope...and there was also a lovely woman”; a theme of positivity which continues today.

Stating that “[he] began to work hard, and [he] enjoyed it”, Hawking went on to explain in an entirely selfless manner the scientific discoveries which marked his graduate years, with one of the most significant being the 1964 discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background; an achievement helping towards his own theories. But this topic was an opportunity for more jokes, too: Hawking remarked on the work of the ‘old school’ scientists, Lifshitz and Khalatnikov, who attempted to prove general relativity by “[trying] to guess a solution”: he argued “it wasn’t clear that the solution they found was the most general one”, prompting Hawking’s own interest in the “Big Bang singularity of cosmology” by 1970. He explained that “[his] work on black holes began with the eureka moment”: a discovery of area theory which he realised during his slow movements into bed due to his disability.

Though stating that he is “excited by the possibilities” that the era of gravitational wave theory will bring in the future; Hawking went on to detail further scientific discoveries he himself contributed towards, including the concept that “information is not lost in black holes, but it is not returned in a useful way” – an episode he summarised with the words “we have found a new road to go down”, as an image of him alongside colleagues in a village’s Black Hole Lane was shown on the presentation.

Hawking also spoke about his book, stating that though “[he] thought [he] might make a modest amount” from it to go towards his children’s education, he also enjoyed explaining his work. Though his period of writing was marked by a visit to CERN where he became ill with pneumonia, he continued the work, arguing that “[he thinks] it is important for scientists to explain their work, particularly in cosmology”.

After this, Hawking’s talk became even more encouraging: he detailed that “we live in a universe governed by rational laws...we can discover and understand”, and argued “there are many ambitious experiments left for the future” to “better understand our place in the universe”, with the possibility that “perhaps one day we will be able to use gravitational waves to look right back into...the big bang”. This field of work, he declared, was pivotal “for the future of humanity” – he pointedly explained that “[he didn’t] think we will survive another thousand years” without going outside our planet, and so wanted to encourage public interest in space in order to further our understanding. Though he stated that he was happy he had made a contribution to the changing picture of the universe in his lifetime, his was a message of inspiration, with the declaration that “[he wants] to share [his] excitement and enthusiasm” with others. His speech ended with the motivational message to “remember to look up at the stars, and not down at your feet.” He argued we all should “try to make sense of what [we] see”, “be curious” and realise that “however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at”, and so we must not “just give up”. His regards at the end of his speech were followed by a lingering standing ovation from all within the packed chamber – a witness to the power of his promising discoveries, progress, and words which encouraged all to create a brighter future. 

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